Shortly after daybreak on May 20, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., lies relatively quiet and still. The temperature hovers around 68 degrees, and a layer of clouds gives cover from the rising sun. Perfect weather for an outdoor volunteer project.
More than 50 NDTA staff, members and their families gather at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In the next few hours, we’ll clean the memorial, a service project initially conceived by Lee Matthews, NDTA’s Vice President of Marketing and Corporate Development.
“When I learned that groups can volunteer to wash the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I immediately thought it would be a great opportunity for NDTA,” said Matthews. “Washing the wall gives us the privilege of honoring those who sacrificed, while at the same time, strengthening the NDTA community.”
In the background, we see the black wall slicing through the earth. A park ranger, Mark Morse, highlights the memorial’s significance as a space representing both national wounds and collective healing.
More practically, Mark provides basic cleaning instructions, along with the hoses, buckets and soap we’ll need. We divide into two teams, each working toward the center from the east and west ends of the wall.
The process is straightforward. We temporarily move any flowers, miniature flags and other items placed at the wall’s base to honor friends and loved ones – we don’t want to douse these small mementos with soap and water.
Each black, granite panel gets rinsed down, removing small particles that might grind into the wall when we use our long-handled brushes. Once panels are thoroughly wet, we dunk our brushes in soapy water-filled buckets, and gently scrub the panels.
As we work toward the wall’s center point, the panels become taller. Everyone has their own scrubbing technique – up and down, side to side, and circular motions. The wall is quickly ready for one final rinse, and we replace the mementos at the wall’s base.
We stand together for an obligatory group photograph, and Mark asks us to turn around. We face the wall, our reflections now highly visible among the chiseled names of more than 58,000 men and women who did not return from Vietnam. Through the wall, we are connected to, and separated from, these service members.
“My family and I came out here today because we think it’s honorable to do something for our nation, and honor those who served and made the ultimate sacrifice for us and our freedoms,” said NDTA member Kevin Ashley.
We depart about 8:30 a.m., and the whole area now buzzes with activity. In ones and twos, visitors walk toward the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.