It was already approaching 80 degrees in Washington, D.C.,
as more than 70 IBEW members gathered near the western edge of the Lincoln
Memorial Reflecting Pool early on Sunday, July 1.
Washington, D.C., Local 26 members help put the shine back on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s iconic wall early on a recent Sunday morning.
Many of these members of Washington Local 26 had turned out with spouses, sons, daughters, and friends to complete a special sunrise mission: to wash the walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
“We found out that the [U.S.] Park Service is always looking for volunteers to help keep these monuments clean,” said Local 26 Business Manager George Hogan, “and we were honored to sign up.”
Besides, Hogan said, having the Pentagon and several large military bases nearby means the Washington area has a strong connection to the men and women who serve the country in its armed forces. “Many members of Local 26 are veterans themselves,” he said.
Each year, millions of visitors from all over the world come to these outdoor monuments, whose surfaces were designed to encourage respectful and reflective touching. But the memorials’ popularity, coupled with their exposure to the elements, can quickly lead to an unsightly accumulation of dirt and litter.
That’s one reason why the U.S. Park Service solicits help from volunteer groups such as veterans’ organizations, college clubs, scout troops, and union locals to spend an early Saturday or Sunday during the spring and summer months — the time of year when the sun rises the earliest — and help put the shine back on the monuments in the hours before the normal crowds of visitors begin streaming in.
Around 6:30 on this particular Sunday morning, the volunteers from Local 26 assembled near the west wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and received instructions from Park Service Ranger Mark Morse, who stressed that the volunteers needed to take great care to prevent scratches or other damage as they cleaned.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s iconic black granite wall, near the northwest corner of the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool, is actually two walls in a wide, V-shaped configuration. Completed in 1982, the wall measures almost 500 feet from end to end, starting out at ground level at the outside edges and gradually reaching just over 10 feet tall in the center.
Engraved on the memorial are, at last count, 58,318 names of the American service personnel who died in the conflict that raged from 1957 to 1975, pitting North Vietnam’s military forces, supported by the Soviet Union and China, against the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese army. The memorial is the centerpiece of a larger monument site that includes statues representing the men and women who served during the war.
The black granite mural wall at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, dedicated in 1995 and situated near the reflecting pool’s southwest corner, also is about 10 feet tall, but instead of names, the 164-foot-long structure is etched with hundreds of photos taken during the war and representing the members of every U.S. military branch that participated.
This memorial honors the 36,574 American military personnel who died during the 1950-1953 conflict between North Korea’s army — backed by the Soviet Union and China — and the U.S.-led United Nations force that supported South Korea’s military. Alongside the mural wall are 19 7-foot-tall steel statues representing the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who served. Nearby are markers noting the other nations that contributed troops to the war effort as well as a reflection area.
After Ranger Morse distributed soft-bristle brushes, buckets and soap specially formulated for cleaning the shiny granite surfaces, the volunteers split into two groups and headed toward their assigned memorials, with a few helping to connect garden hoses to nearby faucets and run the lines out to the cleaning teams.
Morse also noted that many visitors to the walls go there specifically to leave behind personal remembrance items, such as medals, photographs or handwritten letters, and he asked that special care be taken with any such mementos that volunteers might find. The Park Service collects and preserves such items, and many of them could end up being displayed in museums and education centers.
“It’s an honor to be out here and do our part to maintain these powerful reminders of war’s human costs,” said Hogan, who thanked Local 26 contractor Chesapeake/Aldridge Electric for supporting the volunteers with commemorative T-shirts as well as refreshments — including plenty of cold water to keep volunteers safely hydrated while they worked.
The large turnout of volunteers helped make the cleaning go quickly and smoothly, and both memorials were gleaming just in time for another busy day. Meanwhile, Local 26 is planning to tackle more cleanup mornings later this year. Others interested in volunteering can visit ibewlocal26.org to learn more.