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A mending wall: Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Bishop

June 6, 2011

Men, women and children of all ages have been stopping by the Bishop City Park since Friday to pay their respects at the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall – a scaled-down but otherwise exact replica of the monument found in Washington, D.C. Visitors to the Wall have taken the opportunity to thank the men listed on the panels for their ultimate sacrifice, while others have undertaken the solemn task of searching for friends and relatives’ names. Photo by Charles James

There have been famous and infamous walls throughout history such as the Great Wall of China, the Walls of Troy, Hadrian’s Wall and the Walls of Jericho. Some were built to keep foreign invaders out while another, such as the Berlin Wall, was to keep those seeking freedom from escaping.
A well-known poem, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, metaphorically addresses the pointlessness of a wall along which two neighbors walk every year, congenially talking and “mending” the wall’s fallen stones as they move along.
Frost’s poem has several layers of meaning to individual readers based on their personal experience; as does what has come to be known as simply “the Wall” of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The neighbors in the poem “mend” a wall by replacing stones. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was intended to portray a deep wound which would eventually “mend” a nation divided over an unpopular war. It is not a war memorial. It is a memorial remembering and honoring all those fallen and all those who served, both the living and dead.
The memorial wall in Washington, D.C. was designed by a 21-year-old Yale University architecture student, Maya Ying Lin, a Chinese-American from Ohio. Her design was chosen in 1982 as the winner out of 1,441 entries. Not surprisingly and typical of the Vietnam War itself, “the Wall” was not without controversy and its detractors.
There were those who wanted a traditional, representational memorial statue of soldiers heroically posed. The criticism was also tinged with racism and sexism as some questioned how a woman of Asian descent dare be allowed to be selected as the winner of the memorial design contest. Texas millionaire and third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot went to far as to call Ms. Lin an “egg roll” after it was revealed that she was Asian. Yet, after it was built, to his credit Perot said, “The soldiers like it, and the families of the men who didn’t survive like it. That’s what it’s all about as far as I am concerned.”
Yet another opponent called Lin a “gook,” but in the end the design was overwhelmingly supported by veterans, the American Legion in particular, which threw its support behind the project. Even so, Lin had to defend her design in front of the United States Congress, and eventually a compromise was reached. A bronze statue of a group of soldiers now known as “Three Soldiers” and an American flag were added to one side of the Vietnam monument as a result, and on Nov. 11, 1993 the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated to honor the approximately 7,500 women who served during the war. There are eight women’s names listed on the memorial wall.
Even with the other memorial statues which were added later, it is the “the Wall” that is the best-known and beloved part of the memorial. On May 8, 2011, five more names were added to the Wall bringing the total to 58,272 names. In total, more than 2.5 million servicemen served within the borders of South Vietnam.
The Wall’s simplicity and sheer emotional power silenced many of its detractors for it is more than a memorial; it is a shrine. Its highly-reflective black granite surface seems to draw in its surroundings, including the visitor who sees his or her reflection simultaneously with the engraved names, symbolically bringing the past and present together.
The Wall in Washington, D.C. is V-shaped with one side pointing to the Lincoln Memorial and the other to the Washington Monument. The area behind the wall is filled in with earth and grass. Lin’s idea was to evoke an opening or a wound in the earth that would symbolize the gravity of the loss of the soldiers.
A half-scale mobile replica of the Antelope Valley Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial wall which was first unveiled on Nov. 13, 2009, was put on display in Bishop over the Memorial Day period for a week. It is overseen by Point Man Antelope Valley, a non-profit, faith-based organization and an outreach ministry of Journey Church of the Antelope Valley, in Lancaster. Engraved on the Wall are the names of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen lost during the war.
Listed on a “Memory” placard at the entryway to the mobile wall was a list of “Local servicemen who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam”: Eric Dewey, Donald Voget, Thomas Huntley, James Williams, Fred Slemsek, Harold Willis, David Burnett, Ernest Perez, James Bircham, and Roy Maddux Jr.
Bishop resident and Vietnam War veteran Ed Duran, along with his family, visited the mobile memorial. Having served as a medic during the war, Duran recalled three servicemen with whom he served and whose names are inscribed on the wall. One, Lt. Jack Vann Crump, was killed by a mortar in 1969. “He was a good guy and a friend.”
Another fellow soldier that Duran considered “my best friend,” although having known each other for only three months, was Victor Lopez from San Diego, killed by a landmine in Binh Duong, South Vietnam on January, 1969 only six months after arriving on tour. “We were like brothers. Both of us were surfers. We shared photographs of our girlfriends and we talked about how we were going to go to each other’s weddings when we got back home.” They shared a love of the singer Brenda Lee. Duran shared a laugh with another veteran when they recalled the rock group Eric Burdon and the Animals, whose 1965 song “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” served as both an anthem and a goal for many Vietnam veterans.
There were many stories of friendship and loss to be heard at the Wall, yet there was one in particular, the wife of a veteran from Lancaster, who may well have spoken for all those who visited the Wall, both the original and the mobile. She spoke of her first visit to the Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. and with tears welling in her eyes she recalled,
“When I lost my 14-year-old daughter, I felt as if my world had ended,” she said. “Not long afterwards, I went to visit the Wall. As I stood in front of a panel with hundreds of names on it, I came to realize that, while I had lost one child, the Wall represented tens of thousands of others, all of which represented someone’s child, and now ‘lost’ to them forever. I felt humbled by it. I cried for all the parents whose child’s name was on the Wall.”

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