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Stories Behind the Faces

THE JOURNEY From a distance, from Highland Avenue or South Avenue, you first notice the flagpoles. There are seven in all, five representing the various branches of the armed forces, one for the POW/MIA flag, and the American Flag flying high above the rest. The five service flags are flown in the order of priority in the military; the insignias that are set in the floor below the flags are in order of creation of the different branches of service. Beneath the flags is a round landing, inset with a map of the world, and it is the first and highest point of the memorial. When the design committee first walked the potential memorial site, a veteran stopped here on this high point. The topography and the vista reminded him of Vietnam, of the hilltops where they used to wait for the choppers to take them out of battle. The two acres of memorial have been sculpted to create landforms typical of rural Vietnam. The POW/MIA pole, one of only a few flagpoles in the United States that is painted black, rises above the others.

In the breeze, you hear the place before you reach it, metal cords thrashing against metal poles, keeping time. The Overlook is a staging area, an arrival point that offers a sort of introduction to the memorial. The floor plan is of black granite, a large world map in relief that highlights the United States and Vietnam. The physical distance and lack of obvious connection between the two lands are hard to miss. Low walls surround the floor plan; they are of raw grey-brown stone. The design committee chose this "not too slick" material to blend into the surrounding Highland Park. The walls are capped with black granite, a material that recurs throughout the memorial and that ties it to Maya Lin's black-granite Vietnam Veterans Wall in Washington, D.C.

The lights of the Memorial cannot be seen from the parking lot, but seem to show you a special place of sacred ground that can only be seen in its entirety from the Overlook. From the Overlook, you can see the entire memorial: a brick pathway winding through a topography of small planted hills and open areas. A single line of three-foot-high metal bollards snakes along the eastern edge of the walkway, disappearing and reemerging throughout the landscape. You can also see far beyond the memorial: the Overlook was graded up to offer a wide view of the countryside to the south. Your feet and your eyes now create a connection between the world etched in the floor plan, the immediate surroundings of Greater Rochester, and the individual soldiers memorialized in this place.

You move north from the Overlook along a short section of paved walkway and begin to descend in the landscape. To your left, the stone wall bears text adapted from The Things They Carried, a book by Vietnam vet and author Tim O'Brien. You cross a threshold, an inscribed slab of black granite: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. -John 15:13" This is the first time you see the memorial logo, in relief: a soldier walking into a wall, seen from behind.

Now you are on the Walk of Honor. Underfoot are brick pavers, unobtrusive in color. The focus of the walk is on your right, a single-file line of identical bollards, seemingly endless, running along the Walk's edge and curving ahead out of sight. The bollards were installed by artists and are made of brushed stainless steel, "America's metal," and each represents a Rochester-area soldier, killed or missing in action in the Vietnam War. Each bollard bears two small plaques: one, an insignia of the soldier's military branch; the other bearing the soldier's name, date of birth, date of death or disappearance, and high school. The design committee wanted to personalize each bollard, to express the enormity of local loss. At first the names were supposed to be inscribed on the Walk itself, so that visitors would bow their heads to read. But the act of walking on the names of the dead too closely resembled the act of walking on graves.

The bollards are sequenced chronologically according to the final day in the life of each soldier. They resemble human figures, but your own interpretation determines their posture; they trudge forward, heads down, under the weight of what they carry; or they stand erect, heads tipped back, faces turned up towards the sun. You still have to bow your head as you read each name. The Timeline is located along the left edge of the Walk, revealing in black granite the events of the war each day, each month, each year these soldiers died or went missing. Cause on your left; effect on your right. General event on your left; specific outcome on your right. A continual warning about human decisions and their results: war on your left; death on your right.

People leave things near individual bollards, personal tokens that create intimate shrines within the large memorial. As the living, we will always find a way to express a connection with the dead. As human behavior descends into its darker aspects along the black granite timeline, so the Walk drops gradually as it winds through the series of hills and gardens that make up the memorial. Every so often, beyond the timeline, sits a black granite bench, a place for pause. At night, the lights along the walk shine through the bollards. They were designed to resemble the unobtrusive lighting of a church, too dim to read by, but soft enough to be alone with your thoughts.

Further along the path is the Medal of Honor Grove, dedicated to all Vietnam-era service people who received the country's highest military award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Here, black granite again recalls the Wall in Washington, D.C. and points to a bollard directly across the path: William T. Perkins, Jr., Medal of Honor recipient.

You pass through the Veterans Garden on your right, which has the sculpture of the Soldier walking into a black granite wall, walking through time from past to now. The wall is polished to a high reflection, incorporating into the memorial the mirror image of the living. There is a gap in the line of bollards: the design committee specified that the sculpture be accessible; veterans and families of lost soldiers would want to touch the sculpture and to catch their own reflection in the wall. This is a place of connection between the living and the dead.

You continue to review the long line of soldiers. They are still, fixed in place and time as you wind your way to the end of the Walk of Honor, the final event of the war, the last bollard. The topography squeezes in now, a steep hill on either side of you, a "tunnel" of tree canopies overhead. It is darker here; the path is at its lowest point. You pass over two black granite thresholds, move through the landforms and trees, and emerge into the light of the Learning Center. Several black granite benches offer places of contemplation. While moving among a series of black granite monoliths inscribed with numbers and statistics, visitors will gather information about war and its effects on human lives. The statistics reflect the national and local impacts of War: World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In the spirit of veteran unity before a local memorial to the Korean War was built, the names of local residents killed or missing in action in the Korean War were engraved on one of the monoliths. A map of Vietnam occupies the center of this area, surrounded by engravings of military unit patches. It is the hope of the design committee that schoolchildren, "future leaders," will come to this place and learn about the consequences of a government's decisions.

The path, now asphalt, begins to ascend, perhaps an indication that as one gathers knowledge and experience one can rise from the dangers of ignorance to the sanity of informed consideration. The ending stone of the Walk of Honor holds a quote from Psalms, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me... Surely goodness and loving kindness will follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

You reach the Garden of Reflection, a place to sit and think. Here, you are given a challenge, engraved on stone markers: "In the spirit of America, seize this place and this moment to commemorate, to educate, to heal, and to remember all who have served, now serve, and will serve this great country." The poem, "Remember," suggests how to commemorate those who died for your freedom. The path brings you back to the Overlook, which now serves as an end point to your journey, a place of reflection and review.

Adapted from Cindy Mindell-Wong's essay, "The Journey", with input from Max Lill and Andy Portanova