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The Wall of Healing
First Posted by Robert Certain on Friday Feb. 02, 2018


    In seminary, I learned that a symbol is “a sign that participates in the reality of that to which it points.” As such, they are very powerful instruments for addressing the human psyche (which also translates as “soul”). In the May 26, 2002 edition of The Living Church, the Rev. David Wilson noted, after visiting the Wall with some veteran friends, “It dawned on me that this was not just a chance for [the veterans] to come to grips with the past, to seek healing from old wounds, and ultimately to find peace and hope. It was a chance for me as well.” Father Wilson’s discovery was one made nearly every day in that holy place. I was there when it was under construction, the day it was officially opened, and many days since, paying homage to the men who died beside me, and to the piece of myself I left behind. Each time I visit, a new connection and a new healing take place.

    For the Vietnam generation, the most powerful symbol of healing has been the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, dedicated on Veterans Day twenty years ago. Perhaps more than any other memorial in American history, this one became an instant symbol, participating in the reality of the Vietnam War and of the generation that came to age during it. Why is this so?

    • The memorial is shaped like the chevron of an Army private. Many of the dead were junior enlisted men.
    • Another look at the shape is that of an airman’s wings. Many of the dead and missing were aviators.
    • The stylized shape is that of outstretched arms. The left arm points toward the Washington Monument and the Capitol beyond; the right points toward the center of the Lincoln Memorial. As such, they embrace the visitor and the Mall, the repository of the documents and memorabilia of who we are as a people.
    • The engraved names begin with the first killed on the center east panel, and end with the last killed on the center west panel. The result is a “circle of fellowship” of the men and women who died in the war, surrounding the visitor in their embrace.
    • Early on, the Maya Lin design was criticized as “an ugly scar”. That, too, adds to the meaning of the symbol.
    • The Wall is at ground level at both top and bottom, rooting it to the earth.
    • The ground on which it is built is a landfill over an ancient marsh. Vietnam was a “marsh,” bogging down this nation for a decade.
    • As a result, concrete and steel pilings had to be driven many feet into the earth to find a bedrock footing to support the weight of the Wall. Being built on bedrock also adds to the strength of the symbol.
    • Black granite is the single most reflective material on earth. The facing granite of the memorial was polished and engraved at the Binswanger Glass Company in Memphis, Tennessee. These facts tie the Vietnam War to the other great struggle of the era, the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King.
    • When the visitor looks at the names on the wall, it is nearly impossible to not touch them. A slight shift in focus causes the visitor to see him/herself standing behind the names. The optical and tactile event makes the dead one with the living and the living with the dead. In other words, the visitor participates in the reality to which the Wall points.

    I doubt that very many people know the details of the make-up of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Perhaps the various items I’ve enumerated are simple coincidence, but I doubt it. I believe that the same Savior who suffered and died on the cross, suffered alongside the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who died in Vietnam; and that same Savior guided the coalescing of each of these items into a healing whole just as surely as he transformed an instrument of shameful death into a symbol of new life. A detailed knowledge of the underlying pieces does not change the experience of the millions who have made their pilgrimage to the Wall. The experience of the matter is that it works.

    Like the bread and wine of the Eucharist, bringing the real presence of Christ into my being each time I receive it and makes me one with other pilgrims along the way, the Wall reaches across time and space to bring the Vietnam generation into spiritual unity with itself, healing the wounds of battle wherever they occurred and giving hope to future. This memorial is truly a sign that participates in the reality to which it points, and one which has for the past 20 years brought healing to a divided nation.

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