The Healing Power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

New research finds visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial helps vets suffering from PTSD. But a single visit isn’t enough.
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The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., occupies a “remarkable place in America’s collective heart,” as Colin Powell noted during a 2007 ceremony marking its 25th anniversary. But does visiting the famous wall, in which the names of the more than 58,000 American casualties are etched in highly polished black granite, help psychologically wounded survivors cope with their loss?

A newly published study suggests it does, although multiple visits are apparently required for the positive effect to take hold. The paper, in the journal Environment and Behavior, looks at the impact of the memorial on veterans' post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

“The design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and other successful memorials respond to and interact with a user at each stage of his or her shared and personal journey,” writes lead author Nicholas Watkins of the New York-based architecture and engineering firm HOK. He calls the memorial “a catalyst that allows a veteran to see, touch, remember, deal with and master a loss he would rather have avoided, or had difficulty expressing.”

The experiment looked at 62 Vietnam War combat veterans diagnosed with PTSD, 32 of whom took part in an annual trip to the memorial sponsored by a veterans center. One week prior, one week after and again one month after the visit, all the veterans (including those who did not make the trip) were evaluated for PTSD severity. The veterans who went to Washington filled out a detailed questionnaire measuring the helpfulness of various design features of the memorial.

There were no instant healings: In terms of the severity of PTSD symptoms, the researchers found no statistically significant difference between those who visited the wall and those who did not, at either one week or one month. But veterans who have been to the wall two or more times before making this trip demonstrated marked improvement in their PTSD symptoms compared to the others.

“For veterans, ‘dealing with’ their PTSD involves repeated attempts at interpreting and encircling memories of war traumas by visiting the VVM, reflecting on the experience and then going back,” Watkins and his colleagues write. They add that their data suggests “temporary alleviations or aggravations of PTSD severity caused by one visit to the VVM contribute to a gradual process of recovery.”

So what is it about Maya Lin’s initially controversial design that promotes reflection and healing?

“Overall, the design and creation of a successful memorial relies on a designer’s capacity to balance a conflict between creativity and tradition,” the researchers write. “Though the VVM is considered unique and novel, its traditional design features are not. These include polished stone surfaces, engraved names and exaggerated linear perspective.”

The reflective nature of the material proved crucial for many of the veterans. Seeing and consciously recognizing their mirrored face in the marble behind the etched names elicited a deep realization of the reality of their trauma, which many veterans attempt to avoid through addictions and other maladaptive behaviors.

The researchers note that the landscape around the memorial is “wide and open,” full of “safe places from which veterans can view the VVM and ‘warm up’ and ‘prepare’ to go down” for a closer encounter."  This setting, including the mundane benches at the periphery of the memorial, is a crucial component of its healing design; it allows a wary veteran to “safely encircle a loss, or make repeated attempts at approaching a loss.”

In these ways, the authors write, the memorial becomes “a free, highly visible yet anonymous, and publicly accessible means to begin the mourning process.” Through artful design, the unthinkable is made tangible, and thus approachable.

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