For former secretary of state and veteran of the Vietnam War Colin Powell, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial represents a place of healing.
“It represents outstretched arms that say, ‘Come, come closer, see valor, see courage,'” he said. “There are no politics, no disagreements, just the silence of sacrifice.”
Described as the “pre-eminent soldier-statesman” by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Powell delivered the keynote address Sunday to more than 10,000 veterans and respectful onlookers gathered for a ceremony to mark the black granite memorial’s 25th anniversary.
Powell’s voice broke as he described a memento that had been left at the foot of the wall – a cardboard photo frame containing a picture of a young man and a letter to the boy’s father from his mother.
“We will never forget these generations that went before,” Powell said. “We say thank you to them and to their families.”
Other speakers shared equally poignant thoughts with the crowd. Mary “Edie” Meeks, of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation, spoke of her experiences as a nurse in the Vietnam War.
“Nurses lived a reverse reality of the war,” she said. “Whenever there was a victory, it meant more casualties.”
Audience members became more emotional as the speeches continued. Some wept silently as Meeks described how veteran organizations initially refused to include Vietnam veterans because they had “lost the war.” Others bowed their heads in reflection when William Hansen, of Lockheed Martin, read a passage from the Laurence Binyon poem, “For the Fallen.”
Country singer Darryl Worley provided a brief musical interlude with, “I Just Came Back (From a War),” a song which describes the challenges veterans face when returning from combat. Worley entertained troops stationed in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Uzbekistan in 2002.
“I’m not the same freckled-faced boy that grew up in the house next door,” Worley sang. “I just came back from a war.”
President George W. Bush sent his best wishes through Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, as well as his regrets that he could not make it to the ceremony.
Also absent was Maya Lin, the memorial’s designer. Formerly a student at Yale University, Lin’s design was selected from 1,421 entries. William Murdy, CEO of Comfort Systems, read a statement from Lin.
“Never, ever forget the sacredness of those lives,” he said. “That is what the Vietnam Memorial is all about.”
All of the speakers expressed their gratitude for Jan C. Scruggs’ role in the creation of the memorial. Scruggs, who also served as master of ceremonies, is the founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
“Jan Scruggs pledged his life and modest fortune to make sure that those who gave their lives would not be forgotten,” Powell said.
The one-and-a-half-hour ceremony ended a yearlong commemoration of the wall, filled with events promoting recognition of the veterans. Most recently, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund hosted a reading of the names, in which all 58,286 names inscribed on the wall were read over the course of four days.
Veterans who came to the event said they were deeply stirred by the ceremony and by their return to a place where their sacrifices are honored daily.
“I feel a lot of relief,” said Pastor Ted Buxton, who served with the U.S. Coast Guard from 1968 to 1969. “It has helped release some bottled-up feelings.”