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The wall is a reminder — freedom is not free

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow

Dolly Withrow is a retired English professor and the author of four books. Contact Dolly at

Visiting a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, I felt the ghosts of men and women who had lost their lives in war. I walked silently, respectfully, for I knew some never lived long enough to become parents. I knew that those who were parents did not live long enough to see their offspring grow to adulthood. I knew they did not live long enough to watch a daughter walk across a stage and reach for a college diploma or to see a son hit a winning baseball. I knew not one would ever return to family or sweetheart or spouse. Those brave men and women did not live to learn what we have learned of iPods and Internet and DVDs and of yet other wars to follow.

In the shadows of sorrow back home, loved ones wept when they received the dreaded word, and I saw evidence of their continued mourning. There is no closure. At "the Wall," I saw plastic-enclosed photographs and flowers that had been placed on the green lawn in loving memory of lost loved ones whose lives ended amid land mines, artillery fire, and in battlefield scenes that we who have never served in the military could not even imagine.

I had heard stories of war veterans who knew before they left home they would die in battle. Aware that after their deaths, their families would receive money, they left instructions as to how it should be spent. On an early morning as I walked slowly — respectfully — past the Wall, I was reminded of those stories. I read name after name etched in the stone. The blue sky and dew-covered grass surrounding the quiet setting (for no one said a word) belied the tragedy of war casualties symbolized by the memorial. American flags placed at strategic locations first drew my attention. Then I saw the red, white and blue flowers. At last, I stood in front of the wall's first section. Pale gray letters etched into polished black granite spelled the names of those who can never come home. Only a few names were on the first panels. Then there were more and still more as the sections graduated to taller and taller heights to accommodate yet more names. I have learned that on that day more than 58,200 names were listed on the deathly dark wall and more would soon be added.

It would have been easy to be numbed by numbers, but I felt something far stronger than numbers and pale letters spelling names of the dead. I felt something that hit deep in the heart of what America is about. "Freedom is not free" has become a platitude, a bumper-sticker slogan, but its words are rooted in fact. There are no good wars, but there are necessary wars. Still, they are all cruel — despite their necessity. We take our freedoms for granted because most of us have never lived in a country where we dare not express our opinions or let anyone know we believe in some power greater than ourselves. I can write these words because I live in a free country. I can express my opinions because of the men and women willing to fight for freedoms that have come at a dear price. The Memorial Wall was a timely reminder.

Maya Ying Lin is the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. A Yale University undergraduate student, she won a design contest in which thousands had entered. She won the contest and as a result she designed the Wall. Although her parents are from China, having escaped in 1949 when Mao-Tse-tung took control of their country, Maya was born in Athens, Ohio. Acting as a consultant with the architectural firm of Cooper-Lecky, she was involved in the Wall's actual planning. The name Maya Ying Lin is carved at the top of the Wall's center panel.