Units #8, #9, & #10 / 412 - Constitution Gardens, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Korean War Veterans Memorial
"They were just 18. Babies," a woman in her late 60s said after photographing this sculpture at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
And in that moment I was struck in a way I hadn't been at other National Mall park units. Most of the figures honored in previous units had existed far before my time, making it harder for me to relate. And even though I wasn't alive for the Vietnam war, it was heavy for me in the same way it was for the lady reflecting on the sculpture.
Perhaps it was because I thought at any moment an actual Vietnam veteran might walk by.
Or perhaps it was because the school group chaperones would try to silence their chatty students as they passed the memorial wall, aware that this space called for something more reverent.
Or maybe it was because my father served in the Navy during the Vietnam war, and there was a sense that my direct existence might not be if he were one of the 58,286 names on the wall.
As groups of middle-schoolers shuffled by this wall, some in innocent reflection, and others in boisterous patriotism that matched their loud American flag apparel, I couldn't help but become entranced by an elderly lady humbly rubbing names. She seemed unfazed by the noise of the teenagers, just as their young years kept them unaware of the aspects of war less glamorous than their videogames portraying war through the eyes of an immortal protagonist.
As she went from name to name, I wondered if perhaps these were all her friends. If she had lost so many people that she had to work her way strategically across the wall to memorialize them in pencil lead and paper.
Walking past her as she paused for a break, I noticed the "Volunteer" monogram on her polo and was swiftly taken on a lesson of the grander reach of this memorial.
"I've been a volunteer for the National Park Service since 1988," she said.
"I was 2," I replied.
"There's actually a moving wall. A half scale replica that's made of aluminum and moves around the United States. Because it's half scale you can't do a rubbing. So people see the moving wall and request a rubbing through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. They get the names and I pick them up once a week and mail off the rubbings. I do about 200 a week in the summer, 40 a week in the winter."
"My brother served in Vietnam," she continued. "He came home on a stretcher, but he's fine now. The Army took marvelous care of him. Because of that I became interested in the wall."
And thus was the theme of the people I met not only at the Vietnam Memorial, but also the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Visitors were there because of a personal connection.
"We aren't going to any other monuments," said a grandmother who had traveled from Denver to visit the Korean Memorial with her daughter and granddaughter--a newly minted Captain in the Air Force. "I just wanted to see this one. I've been wanting to see this memorial for a long time. My husband was wounded in the Korean War and I served too. I worked for the Marine Corps in Paris Island, South Carolina. Now he's gone and I'm retired. I'm 82-years-old and his postal system pension is taking really good care of me...I love our government."
I was instantly taken by her comment about the government.
Standing with a view of the soldier sculptures just over her shoulder, this hauntingly realistic memorial drove home the human aspect of wars. The 54,246 Americans dead (628,833 worldwide), the 103,284 wounded (1,064,453), the 7,140 captured (92,970), and 8,177 missing (470,267), represented just behind this short woman by 19 seven feet tall, ethnically diverse stainless steel sculptures walking through a dense patch of green bushes.
One of those millions was her husband.
She supported those millions.
And now, at 82-years-old, she was still proud of the government which had been a lasting part of her life, and will continue to be for her legacy through her granddaughter.
The legacy of America is on display just east of these two war memorials. And while close in distance--just over a hill of grass--the emotion of Constitution Gardens is that of celebration rather than solemnity.
Unknown to me until I began this national park quest, this often overlooked part of the Mall contains a lake with an island paying homage to the writers of the U.S. Constitution.
Though essentially just a nature park apart from these engraved stones, the day I visited, this quaint park became a flurry of activity due to National Geographic's annual BioBlitz.
The annual event was launched in 2007 in Rock Creek Park, then moved to Hawaii and around the country before returning to D.C. for this year's National Park Service Centennial. Interestingly, one of the purposes of this BioBlitz was to categorize the various species existing in the Gardens and surrounding Mall.
Armed with 400 tablets provided by Verizon, schoolchildren marched around the Mall side-by-side with National Geographic scientists and documented local species on the new iNaturalist app. As a NatGeo representative reminded the crowds, there are "millions and millions" of species existing in the world, and these on the Mall--different as they may seem--are just a small handful.
As I dropped by the Verizon tent, we spoke of technology's role in making possible what would have been insurmountable only decades ago. As my nature guide on the subsequent bird-watching tour pointed out, "In the palm of my hand I can now take records in a way unthinkable to scientists only a generation ago. And then--from almost anywhere in the field--I'm able to instantly share that information with scientists around the world."
With that instant access to knowledge, it was fascinating to learn of the efforts to put it to use and return the National Mall to its natural habitat. As I discovered is a controversial topic, the National Mall now exists with very few of the species native to the ecosystem before human interference.
"You see those Starlings?" my guide asked. "Those were brought here from England in an effort to authenticate the scenery of a Shakespeare performance. Now they've taken over, because they're an invasive species and we probably didn't know that when they were brought here. But now we do."
Hostas: a "non-native, non-invasive" plant included in Constitution Gardens.
Holding a tree leaf with bite marks in it, she said, "This gives me hope. This means this plant is supposed to be here. That it's providing food for the insects."
And perhaps that's what binds these national parks together. Whether it be for our grandchildren and our personal legacy, our ecosystem, or the 18-year-old babies who will one day lead our country the way the creators of the Constitution did, there is hope that the history we memorialize will make a difference. For our own lives, for those of others, and for the goodwill of the planet.
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5 Constitution Gardens, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Korean War Veterans Memorial Highlights (You Can Do)
1. Picnic at Constitution Gardens (NOT on the island though)
As picturesque and uncrowded as Constitution Gardens is, the inner island is a "minefield of poop" to quote my boyfriend. A large number of fowl make this space their nesting ground, meaning in addition to poo, you'll be disturbing mother geese and mallard ducks.
In addition to the many geese and ducks, the trees surrounding the Gardens provided a number of birdwatching opportunities (a "bird bonanza" according to my guide). Join in a group as I did, or just search on your own. You never know what you'll see...
Maybe even a bald eagle!
Easy E would love to see more of you where all his pictures are posted on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
3. Take a Break Behind the Korean War Memorial
The National Mall is huge! (Nearly 2 miles long).
It's best enjoyed at a pace that allows for breaks to rest your feet (lest you get a blister). Often crowded during the day or high tourist seasons (summer and especially spring), there is a calming grove of trees behind the Korean War Memorial with benches to rest, plenty of shade, and immaculately pruned trees to gaze at.
4. Walk the Vietnam Memorial Wall
Starting level with the ground and expanding to almost double my height, it's an emotional journey to walk past the 58,286 names on the wall. Sitting at its foot are a number of personal memorials added to the flags, ribbons and wreaths.
5. Make a Rubbing
There is a directory listing the location of all 58,286 names on the Vietnam Memorial wall. Volunteers like Annmarie even carry pads of paper and pencils for visitors who forget to bring their own.
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Click here to read about each of the other 400+ parks.
10 Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
(Plus a Bonus 2 -- these are the remaining units in DC proper)
-Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site
-Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
-Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac
-Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site
-Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site
-Rock Creek Park
-Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial
-The White House
-National Capital Parks
-World War 1 Memorial in Pershing Park
-Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument