The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the most popular and well-known in the city. In its early phases of planning, some criticized the monument as not "heroic" enough, as the wall design had a rather negative association, often described as representing a wound not yet healed. As a compromise, Frederick Hart, who placed third in the overall competition, created this magnificent work, The Three Soldiers, a bronze sculpture of three servicemen, unveiled in 1984, which depicts soldiers of three different ethnicities gazing toward the wall and the names of the fallen.
The monument in general has been a lightning rod for controversy over the course of its existence. Completed in 1982, it is adjacent to the National Mall, and now receives 3 million visitors a year. It was designed by Maya Lin, who famously was awarded the commission determined by a design contest. She was a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale at the time. One of the backers reportedly stated that he had never "imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone," described as such due to its color and admittedly unorthodox design. This criticism faded fairly quickly following its construction, however, perhaps reflective of practical reality. The typesetting of the names, originally 58,195, was done by a company in Atlanta. The wall is comprised of two sections, measuring 246 feet; the whole serves as something of a giant retaining wall, meant to represent a scar carved into the earth. The stone originated in Bangalore, India, specifically chosen because of its highly reflective quality. The stone fabrication took place in Vermont, and the names were carved at a factory in Memphis, TN. The names are arranged not alphabetically, but chronologically, starting at the apex of panel 1E. The first casualty was recorded in 1959, but it was later determined that the first Americans killed in Vietnam were military advisers killed by artillery fire in 1957. There are now 58,262 names, with about 1,200 listed as MIA. I often wonder how many true casualties there were; 58,000 seems a small number in some ways, considering how many soldiers were affected by their experiences there. Many, of course, were killed in Vietnam, but died in the US from a number of causes, including cancer from exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic compounds. There is now a plaque honoring those veterans, whose injuries fall outside DOD guidelines. It was dedicated only in 2004.