The Vietnam War Memorial is hallowed ground.
In a city of gleaming white marble monuments and pink cherry blossoms, the black, sunken facade, etched with the 58,307 names of the fallen, stands out as a haunting tribute to the sacrifice of a generation.
The memorial itself stirs emotion. When anyone, young or old, looks into the polished volcanic rock of the wall, it looks back. At it’s highest point the wall is over 10 feet tall. It envelops its visitors with names of those who lost their lives in a war which lasted nearly two decades.
It can be overwhelming to visit. For the hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans still alive, it is a place of eternal significance.
The wall itself is open to the public 24 hours a day 365 days a year. It is our nation’s most embraceable monument. You can touch it, rest your head against it and cry on it. No one will stop you.
Paper and pencils are even provided at the memorial to encourage guests to make a stencil of an engraved name. Due to the hands-on nature of the memorial, it is imperative that the wall remains polished and immaculate, not just for the many millions of visitors a year, but for the legacies of the fallen etched within it.
However, the wall has not always been maintained at the level one would hope.
Veterans visiting the wall during the Clinton-era began to notice that the traffic to the memorial was increasing, yet it was only being cleaned once a month. It was becoming dingy. These veterans got angry and did something about it. The Washington Post reports:
In 1998, dissatisfied with the job that the National Park Service was doing and upset that bird droppings had filled in some of the engraved names, Jan Scruggs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund took action. He handed 37 toothbrushes to visiting vets from Wisconsin, who scrubbed the filth away.
In order to keep the memorial in pristine condition, local veteran groups offered to help with maintenance of the hallowed ground. The Park Service agreed. Now, approximately once every weekend in peak tourist season (spring and summer), a different veteran group or community service will arrive at sunrise, long before the throngs of tourists show up, to wash the wall.
The labor is intensive but in the end, every inch of the 247-foot wall gets sprayed down, scrubbed by hand and polished.
Many of the men and women who show up to clean are veterans themselves, cleaning a memorial built in their honor.
So it was on the morning of Sunday, April 9, when Virginia and Maryland chapters of Rolling Thunder rode into the memorial before sunrise. Clad in leather motorcycle gear with a colorful array of patriotic patches sewn in, a dozen members of the iconic biker club, most of them veterans, readied for an hour of washing and scrubbing the black wall.
Today, however, they had some extra help. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would be scrubbing alongside them.
Zinke has taken an immersive approach to his new job, which happens to include oversight of America’s national parks and monuments. The Secretary rode a horse into the office on his first day, shoveled snow off the Lincoln Memorial steps after a snowstorm, gave stunned tourists a personal tour of the cavernous cathedral beneath the Lincoln Memorial, and has engaged in international sock diplomacy.
Today, the Trump appointee and Navy SEAL continued his hands-on approach to the office by hand-scrubbing the smudges and bird droppings off the Vietnam War Memorial.