The Vietnam War Memorial is hallowed ground.
In a city of gleaming white marble monuments and pink cherry blossoms, the black, sunken facade, etched with the 58,307 names of the fallen, stands out as a haunting tribute to the sacrifice of a generation.
The memorial itself stirs emotion. When anyone, young or old, looks into the polished volcanic rock of the wall, it looks back. At it's highest point the wall is over 10 feet tall. It envelops its visitors with names of those who lost their lives in a war which lasted nearly two decades.
It can be overwhelming to visit. For the hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans still alive, it is a place of eternal significance.
The wall itself is open to the public 24 hours a day 365 days a year. It is our nation's most embraceable monument. You can touch it, rest your head against it and cry on it. No one will stop you.
Paper and pencils are even provided at the memorial to encourage guests to make a stencil of an engraved name. Due to the hands-on nature of the memorial, it is imperative that the wall remains polished and immaculate, not just for the many millions of visitors a year, but for the legacies of the fallen etched within it.
However, the wall has not always been maintained at the level one would hope.
Veterans visiting the wall during the Clinton-era began to notice that the traffic to the memorial was increasing, yet it was only being cleaned once a month. It was becoming dingy. These veterans got angry and did something about it. The Washington Post reports:
In 1998, dissatisfied with the job that the National Park Service was doing and upset that bird droppings had filled in some of the engraved names, Jan Scruggs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund took action. He handed 37 toothbrushes to visiting vets from Wisconsin, who scrubbed the filth away.
In order to keep the memorial in pristine condition, local veteran groups offered to help with maintenance of the hallowed ground. The Park Service agreed. Now, approximately once every weekend in peak tourist season (spring and summer), a different veteran group or community service will arrive at sunrise, long before the throngs of tourists show up, to wash the wall.
The labor is intensive but in the end, every inch of the 247-foot wall gets sprayed down, scrubbed by hand and polished.
Many of the men and women who show up to clean are veterans themselves, cleaning a memorial built in their honor.
So it was on the morning of Sunday, April 9, when Virginia and Maryland chapters of Rolling Thunder rode into the memorial before sunrise. Clad in leather motorcycle gear with a colorful array of patriotic patches sewn in, a dozen members of the iconic biker club, most of them veterans, readied for an hour of washing and scrubbing the black wall.
Today, however, they had some extra help. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would be scrubbing alongside them.
Zinke has taken an immersive approach to his new job, which happens to include oversight of America's national parks and monuments. The Secretary rode a horse into the office on his first day, shoveled snow off the Lincoln Memorial steps after a snowstorm, gave stunned tourists a personal tour of the cavernous cathedral beneath the Lincoln Memorial, and has engaged in international sock diplomacy.
Today, the Trump appointee and Navy SEAL continued his hands-on approach to the office by hand-scrubbing the smudges and bird droppings off the Vietnam War Memorial. This Independent Journal Review reporter was invited to watch. Here is what happened:
6:15 a.m.: Zinke greets members of Rolling Thunder next to their motorcycles parked on Constitution Ave and 21st Street, adjacent the National Mall. They walk to the memorial where hoses and buckets are waiting, courtesy of the Park Service.
6:27 a.m.: Zinke and other members of the biker club carry the hoses to spigots to connect them to begin the work.
6:31 a.m.: Members of the group begin spraying down the wall and sidewalk in front of the memorial. These are the steps to washing the Vietnam War Memorial:
Step 1: Spray the surfaces, both the wall and the sidewalk, with water.
This removes any debris and makes sure you won't scratch the surface when you scrub it.
Step 2: Use large brushes and soap to physically scrub any smudging or pencil marks from the wall and sidewalk.
Step 3: Rinse the suds off and let the wall air dry.
6:43 a.m.: Zinke uses a large scrub brush covered in suds to wash the very top of the memorial. Between scrubbing sessions, he makes small-talk with veterans and park service officers.
7:17 a.m.: Zinke and the Rolling Thunder bikers have scrubbed and rinsed the entire wall. The memorial is wet and slippery but it glistens brightly. The team gathers for a group photo.
7:27 a.m.: I ask Zinke why he showed up to wash the wall. His response:
Rolling Thunder is here to wash the wall. I'm here to help them.
I also ask some of the Rolling Thunder veterans why they showed up to wash the wall. Their responses:
Mike Porche, two tours in Vietnam, Air Force
I wash to wall to honor the brothers who have fallen in Vietnam. Being a veteran I really understand the need for us to come out and support this program. To me it gives a lot of satisfaction. Being retired and getting up at 4am, it has to be something very important. This is important.
Cornell 'Smokey' Langford, two tours in Vietnam, Air Force
The reason I'm out here now is that I served my time and came back to an ungrateful nation. All I wanted to do was serve my country. I still do. Im just trying to give back those on the wall. I have two friends on the wall. They are also on the back of my vest in memorial. It's a way to give back and let them know we will never forget them. I remember them and hopefully someday someone will remember me.
Dennis Moore, 2.5 years in Vietnam, US Army
I got friends on that wall. That's what we do.
William De Blander, Served in DMZ in South Korea, US Army
I got friend on the wall who served with me. One of our goals in Rolling Thunder is to care for our vets and this is a great way to do it. We maintain this memorial to honor those men fallen and those who are still with us.
Deb, Gulf War Veteran, US Navy
It's a way to pay back and give more service to the country and also to honor those who we lost in this war. We do this every month and it is a great honor to do it.
7:37 a.m.: Rolling Thunder returns the cleaning materials to the Park Service and mounts their motorcycles. Zinke walks the length of the memorial and heads back in the direction of the Department of the Interior.
7:40 a.m.: The first handful of tourists approach the gleaming, wet memorial: A mother pushing her baby in a stroller. She minds a sign on the sidewalk which warns the memorial is slippery. She proceeds carefully, not knowing who had just been there before her, washing the memorial for her and her child to enjoy.