WASHINGTON — In the early morning, just as the sun breaks over the Capitol dome, a small group of volunteers gathers at the black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that heartbreaking slash in the earth by the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.
They quietly hook up hoses, attach nozzles and spray down the wall, removing a week's worth of dust, dirt and debris. Then they fill up buckets with a mild detergent, switch to soft brushes and, starting on either end of the wall, begin to scrub. Countless fingerprints, smears and tears that have accumulated since the last wash, a week ago, vanish.
"I have 11 buddies on that wall, including my best friend from high school," said Steve Nelson, of District Heights, Md., who served in the Army in Vietnam. He was turning on the water this month after the hoses were unkinked and extended.
So many hands have touched the wall over the past 29 years. Most of these men and women have touched it, too, and it touches them even as they work to keep it clean.
"When I first came back, I thought my name could have been on this wall," said Robert Dunlap, a Washington resident who served during 1968 and 1969, and who helped clean the stone walkway. "When I first came down I could only be here at night," a not-uncommon behavior of some veterans in the first few years of the wall's existence, as they sought to mourn alone. "This wall right here brought us together," he said.
The washing of the dead, with its religious resonances, arose out of frustration. 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.
Each year after the cherry blossoms have fallen, until the first snowfall, the volunteers turn up Saturdays and Sundays at 6:30 a.m., long before tourists arrive. The work takes less than hour. Many military veterans are among the regular volunteers.
"It's a show of respect. These aren't just names, these are people who gave their lives for the freedom we enjoy. We've got to keep it clean," said Mike Luftman, who was at the site with the Maryland chapter of the motorcycle group Rolling Thunder, which includes many veterans. "As a veteran and an American, this is probably one of the highest honors you can have, to make sure this monument is in pristine shape."