Vietnam Veterans of America
It’s an understatement to say that even in Washington, D.C., a city full of monuments and memorials, there’s nothing quite like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Visually, of course, it stands alone, its black granite a stark contrast to the pale marble of other memorials dotting the landscape. Also, The Wall is built into the earth rather than atop it. Then there’s the unparalleled experience of seeing all those names, followed by the rush of emotions they can evoke.
Moreover, in addition to ensuring remembrance of those who served in a particular war, The Wall was meant to offer a kind of healing—and as many can attest, it has.
Ironically, The Wall’s very uniqueness is possibly the main reason it may be the most duplicated memorial in the country. Since its dedication in 1982, many versions have been built. Some are traveling memorials—walls that move across the country—and others are permanent replicas. All but one are scaled-down versions; last year Perryville, Missouri, unveiled the only full-scale reproduction.
And a question arises: How is it possible for apparently anyone to freely copy a nationally established monument?
“Any intellectual property rights to The Wall were given to the federal government long ago, and the federal government has never enforced those rights,” said Jim Knotts, president and chief executive officer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), the nonprofit organization that built The Wall. Many of the original design documents, he added, are public record. In fact, plans for The Wall’s foundation can be found online, according to Frank Robinson, whose company built the replica in Perryville.
Thus, the answer: Anyone with the desire and the means can build a copy. No license or permission is required.
No one seems to know for sure how many have been built, but VVMF estimates there are about six traveling walls—including VVMF’s own, called The Wall That Heals—and perhaps an additional fifteen to twenty permanently installed versions across the country.
VVMF supports the idea of copies. “We know from years of experience of people visiting The Wall here in Washington what a healing opportunity it is,” Knotts said. “And we know that some Vietnam veterans haven’t been to Washington for one reason or another and won’t ever come. So, if there’s a copy near them that they can see and have a healing experience doing it, that’s all for the good.”
That’s pretty much why VVMF built The Wall That Heals, a half-scale version that travels so that Vietnam veterans and their families or survivors who can’t come to D.C. can have a chance to see the memorial. It’s also the reason Dennis Howland organized the effort to build a replica in his home state of Utah. Howland, a member of VVA’s Board of Directors, remembers when he first saw The Wall in D.C. “I thought of all my friends back home and wished they could see it,” he said. “There are so many reasons a lot of them can’t come—might be their finances, or their health or physical conditions, or something else. I was talking about it with a friend, and he said, ‘Let’s build one.’ I agreed.”
Howland turned to a company that has built several reproductions: American Veterans Traveling Tribute, based in Texas. How much does a replica cost? The company’s CEO did not respond to an interview request, but according to its website, AVTT offers a 50 percent scale wall and one at 80 percent, with prices starting at $145,000 and $245,000, respectively. The company has also built its own traveling wall, which is 80 percent scale and can be leased.
Utah’s permanent memorial wall, also an 80 percent scale version, is located in Layton City, just north of Salt Lake City. It was dedicated in July 2018. And it bears the names of young men who were killed not long after attending the same high school Howland attended. To say Howland’s determination to build a wall in Utah was motivated by deep personal feelings—and not just for those he knew—may also be an understatement.
“I made a promise to myself when I left Vietnam in 1967, when we’d already lost almost 20,000 kids by then, that I would do something so that the world remembers what we did,” Howland said. It took about fifty years, but he kept that promise.
One of the next replica walls to be dedicated—in November 2020, if all goes according to schedule—will be the one under construction in Massachusetts. Justin Latini, VVA’s Massachusetts State Council Treasurer, has led the fundraising efforts and also has been involved with the planning for an 80 percent scale version. “We’re putting it in Fall River because that will also be for Rhode Island as well as Massachusetts,” Latini said.
He added that the details of the construction are all up to the builder—AVTT again. Local contractors are handling the landscaping.
However, no matter how many reproductions there are, the original remains—so far, at least—unique. AVTT’s walls, for instance, are made of high-gloss anodized aluminum, not black granite. VVMF’s own The Wall That Heals is a 50 percent scale made of synthetic granite, primarily to make it easier to transport (80-pound panels vs. the 800-pound originals). Names appear on The Wall by date of casualty, then alphabetically for multiple casualties on the same date; Knotts said that some copies have the names in different order. Some states reportedly engraved only the names of their residents who died, and at least one replica includes names of people killed prior to 1959, the start date on The Wall.
Even the full-scale reproduction in Perryville, Missouri, which some call “The Sister Wall,” has some variation. To Knotts’s knowledge, the Perryville memorial is the only one that went to the same quarry in India for the same black granite. It is also angled toward the sun in the same way The Wall is, and it has a full-size copy of the Memorial Plaque that was added to the D.C. site in 2004. And Perryville is so far the only version that used a still relatively new computerized database VVMF created of names as they appear on The Wall to ensure the names—including the rare misspelling—were etched the same. (The database is the only component of The Wall that VVMF owns and licenses.)
Before building the Perryville replica, Robinson Construction Company sent people to The Wall to take minutely detailed measurements. “That’s when VVMF suggested we should make the panels three inches thick instead of two inches, because some of the two-inch panels on The Wall had cracks,” said CEO Frank Robinson.
“They worked tirelessly to make their experience as much like ours as possible,” Knotts said, and that’s why he worked closely with the Perryville project. But as he pointed out, in addition to the Perryville panels being thicker, the top of The Wall is at ground level; Perryville’s is mostly built into the earth, but it rises above ground level.
That’s a difference that was dictated by an Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirement. “We went three feet and six inches above ground because we did not want to have a falling hazard, which would’ve been an OSHA violation,” Robinson said. That requirement didn’t apply to The Wall since it was built on federal property, he added. “And that’s the one major difference in appearance.”
The notion of authenticity can be elusive since there’s no enforcement of design protection and no obligation for anyone to consult with VVMF. Tim Tetz, outreach director for the Foundation, said that for a reproduction to be considered a “replica,” VVMF believes it should have all the elements of The Wall—a mirror image, more or less, even at a smaller scale. VVMF refers to those that are not as “tribute” walls.
Ultimately, though, it may all be irrelevant. “The beauty is that even if you copy The Wall, each will have its own unique character,” said Knotts. “We do believe that replicas should be accurate, though there’s nothing we can do about that. But as long as a Vietnam veteran or a family member can find the name of a loved one and touch that name, and it helps heal, that’s all that matters.”
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