Located in a quiet section on the lawn east of the Insurance Building on the Washington State Capitol campus, Washington State’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial honors state residents who lost their lives or are missing-in-action during the Vietnam War. This divisive war affected Washington residents deeply. Built in the 1980s, the current memorial is actually the second Vietnam War memorial on campus.

heritage bank LogoMany veterans felt ignored after the war ended. Some sought to honor their fallen comrades with a memorial on the Washington State Capitol Campus in Olympia. This would be the first war memorial built on campus since the Winged Victory Monument (1938), which was constructed to honor World War I veterans, and the Medal of Honor Memorial (1976).

The first Vietnam Veterans Memorial on campus was a marble box that encased a scroll listing the names of Washington state residents killed or missing in action in the war. Governor John Spellman dedicated the memorial on November 11, 1982, the same day that the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington D.C.

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Crowds gather at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s dedication in 1987. Photo courtesy: Washington State Archives, Secretary of State Collection

Many veterans were outraged by the design of the state monument, feeling that it “entombed” the memory of their fallen comrades. “I remember hearing this little girl asking her mother if her daddy’s name was inside,” reflected Vietnam veteran Richard Covert to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on May 24, 1987 before the dedication of the second monument, “and the mom said, ‘I think so, dear.’ I started crying. It was like they were burying the war, putting them away and forgetting them like they had been trying to for all those years…”

In December 1982 veterans and families began asking state officials to build a new monument. In 1984, they were successful in getting the state legislature to pass a bill authorizing the creation of a new memorial and creating an advisory committee of state official and veterans (including Covert). In the meantime, the night before each Veteran’s Day hundreds would gather at “the Rock” to read the names on the buried scroll.

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Secretary of State Ralph Munro presides over the memorial’s dedication in 1987. Munro was heavily involved in the monument’s creation. Governor Booth Gardner (pale suit) and wife Jean Gardener are on the right. Photo courtesy: Washington State Archives, Secretary of State Collection

Fundraising for the project began in April 1986. The new memorial was entirely funded by private donations. 1,466 individuals, organizations and corporations raised $178,000 (mostly in amounts less than $25). The committee was even able to return the money appropriated for the project by the legislature.

The memorial was designed by architect Kris Snyder of EDAW, Inc. (Seattle) and is reminiscent of Maya Lin’s design for the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It consists of a rolling semi-circular green granite wall around a forty-five-foot base. The wave-like wall is seven feet tall at the highest, one foot at lowest. The wall is meant to represent the circle of life, with its ups and downs, running uninterrupted except for a crack in the shape of North and South Vietnam representing the break in the circle caused by the war.

A group of Army helicopters fly in a “missing man” formation over the 1987 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The pilots were Vietnam veterans.
A group of Army helicopters fly in a ‘missing man’ formation over the 1987 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The pilots were Vietnam veterans. Photo courtesy: Washington State Archives, Secretary of State Collection

The names of over a 1,000 Washington state residents who lost their lives in the war or are missing in action are engraved on 16 black stone panels. The names are listed chronologically by date of death, from Richard Geyer in July 1963 to Daniel Bennedett in May 1975.

Small crosses mark those missing in action. There are holes between columns so that visitors can leave flowers, flags and other mementos. These often very personal remembrances are collected and preserved by the Washington State Archives.

Construction of the memorial began in 1986, with a groundbreaking on November 11. Building hit a small snag in April 1987 when contractors accidently put the panels up in the wrong order. Luckily, the problem was caught before they were cemented in. Work remained on schedule.

The Wall was dedicated on May 25, 1987. A candlelight memorial the night before was the last time the names would be read at the old monument. Individuals and groups sent flowers and wreaths for the ceremony. 6,500 veterans from Vietnam and other wars, their families, and many Vietnamese Americans gathered to watch the dedication. The names were unveiled and veterans handed the scroll from the old marker to the governor.

Since then, more names have been added to the Wall: 36 in 1988, 4 in 1990, 1 in 1997 and 1 in 2016, bringing the total to 1,124. Diamonds have been added around the crosses of those missing in action whose remains have since been recovered. In 1997 the following words were added, from a compilation of responses from Vietnam veterans across the state:

“To all my brothers and sisters who made it back, but never made it home. In memory of those who have died from physical and emotional wounds received while serving in the Vietnam War. We honor and recognize their pain and suffering, but above all we respect the courage of these Washington State residents. When our country called, you were there. We have not forgotten, you are not alone. You Now Rest in Glory. Memorial Day May 29, 1997”

The former Vietnam Memorial was remade into the POW-MIA Memorial in 1988. The current Vietnam memorial led to the creation of the Korean War Memorial (1994) and the World War II Memorial (1999). While plans are currently being made on how to honor more recent conflicts, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial remains an important area to honor and remember veterans of that war.

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