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Honoring the Vietnam veterans - one by one

Since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982, millions of Americans and foreign visitors have filed by the black granite walls that bear the names of those killed or still unaccounted for. And the reaction of people here is almost always the same.

Quietly scanning the graceful and intimate monument - drawn toward the center of the gradually descending V shape - they are taken with the enormity of the loss of so many young Americans. Hands reach out to touch the face of the converging walls. Fingers point to friends or loved ones. A head is bowed. An arm reaches out to touch another's shoulder.

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Some visitors leave mementos at the base of the wall. An embroidered American flag. A vase with flowers. A pair of cowboy boots no longer worn. A letter from a mother.

Vietnam was unlike any other war the United States has fought. Sharply divisive. Seemingly interminable, with no fixed beginning or conclusion. Nearly 3 million service men and women were sent off during the 16 years of US military involvement there. They went, not in hometown regiments, but one by one. And they came back the same way 12 months later. Alone. No parade. For most, not even a ''thanks'' for their private sacrifice.

Just as they did during the war, Vietnam vets had to turn to each other for mutual support and an expression of remembrance and gratitude for the 57,939 who did not return from combat in Southeast Asia. In the end, just as the nation was beginning to sense that perhaps the warrior should have been seen separately from the war, Vietnam vets gave themselves a parade and a memorial.

That was Veterans Day 1982, a cathartic and emotional gathering of thousands who stretched quietly from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. Vets in fatigues hugged each other and wept. Fathers lifted their children to touch engraved names high up on the wall. Politicians spoke. But no one was more warmly received than Jan Scruggs, the former Army corporal who started the memorial fund drive and design competition, and pursued his idea doggedly through long months of controversy.

The purpose of the memorial, Mr. Scruggs said then, was simply to ''make the country a little more proud of the veterans and the veterans a little more proud of their service.'' That day was a turning point for many who had served in Vietnam.

Today, veterans - some in bits of uniform or jungle hats, wearing their ribbons and medals - mingle with many others who come here out of curiosity and respect. There is a certain connectedness that adds to the reverence and beauty of the place. The names are listed chronologically so that those who fell side by side are remembered here the same way. And in the shiny face of the monument, one sees not only the names but one's own reflection.

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