Thursday, September 19, 2013

Contemplating tumult in American history: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Vietnam Era Educational Center

If you've driven past the Garden State Arts Center, you've most likely missed a huge opportunity to learn more about one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. You'll see small signs pointing toward the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but the markers do very little to alert passers-by about the impact of the place they could choose to visit.

Admittedly, I was one of those people until fairly recently. Having visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., I expected the New Jersey version to be similar, just smaller. However, what I found was much more: both a memorial and a museum that explains the Vietnam War and its lasting impact on American society.

Located steps away from the memorial, the Vietnam Era Museum and Educational Center is the country's only such facility, and when you think about it, it's something that's sorely needed. With the passage of time, the war and its impact have evolved from political hot buttons to subjects in history classes, and the brothers and sons who served and survived have aged to become grandfathers and uncles. Thankfully, veterans are treated with greater respect now, but it's still important that people continue to understand the complexity of war and the range of challenges it poses to the nation and society.

The museum's layout is simple yet effective. The main exhibit area is a large, circular room, ringed with a timeline that explains the history of Vietnam, crucial events during the war, U.S. involvement, and what was going on 'back home,' from popular culture to protest. An inner ring brings the story from history to personal experience: actual letters from soldiers and loved ones often poignantly reveal the pain of separation and the alternately mundane and terrifying aspects of war. Scattered among the letters are service medals, childrens' drawings and a shockingly pragmatic telegram notifying family of a soldier's death and the shipping process for his remains.

The center of the room has the potential to make the biggest impact on visitors. It's the testimony theater, where speakers share the impact the Vietnam War had on their lives. Whether a veteran, a war protester, or perhaps the family member of a soldier who died in the war, each offers intensely personal perspectives on abstract concepts of loss, experience or opposition.

Unfortunately, no testimonies were scheduled for the day of my visit, but I was fortunate to get a tour of the outdoor memorial from volunteer guide Dan O'Leary. While the memorial is open 24 hours a day, it's well worth going when the museum is open and Dan or one of his fellow veterans can share their own wartime experiences.

Designed by Vietnam refugee and naturalized American citizen Hien Nguyen, the memorial is rich in symbolism. As we walked toward the memorial, Dan explained that the lighting fixtures along the path were spaced at the same intervals as soldiers walked when they moved through the jungle. By allowing several steps distance in front and behind, they'd avoid mass casualties if the lead soldier set off a booby trap by disturbing a trip wire strung across the path.

Visitors enter the memorial itself through one of two concrete tunnels shaped like bunkers, representing the transition from home, or 'the world,' to 'in country' (the theater of war in Vietnam). Once inside, you're at the lowest part of a large bowl carved into the terrain, with the state tree, a red oak, in the center. A dramatic sculpture stands nearby, featuring a nine-foot tall statue of a soldier standing over another of a nurse who's tending to an injured GI. Each is a different ethnicity, reflecting the backgrounds of the Americans who served in the war. Two ramps leading upward toward the surrounding walls are meant to represent DNA, the strands of life.

The New Jersey memorial lists 1562 state residents by the day of the year on which he (or in one case, she) was killed or listed as missing in action during the war. Of the 366 panels that circle the inside of the memorial, only a few are blank, leading me to think about the randomness of death during wartime. During a war in which U.S. involvement was so lengthy, why were some days 'lucky' while others were not? And being able to see dates of loss gives visitors a chance to make a personal connection even if they didn't know anyone who was killed in the war or who lost a loved one there. On a birth date, or a wedding anniversary, while you were celebrating, had someone else made the ultimate sacrifice?

On the walk from the museum to the memorial, Dan pointed out other poignant features of the grounds, too. An inviting, shaded meditation garden is dedicated to all women veterans of the Vietnam War and offers a quiet place to contemplate. Another area features a statue memorializing dogs who serve with the troops in all wars, past, present and future.

More than 9000 students visit the memorial and museum every year to learn more about the Vietnam era, and if their experience is anything like mine, they come out enriched from the experience. Even if you're old enough to remember the war and the tumult of protest in the U.S., it's well worth getting off the Parkway and spending an hour to learn more and contemplate the sacrifice of our fellow New Jerseyans.


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