Washington • Armed with rags, paper towels and a bucket of soapy water, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday in shining up the Vietnam Wall on Veterans Day.
Just after dawn, and in freezing temperatures, the duo joined a crew of volunteers to help wash the black stone wall engraved with the names of the 58,195 American soldiers who never returned from war.
Sylvester Redman. Dennis Gonzalez. Robert Lazarus.
Zinke’s cloth passed over their names and those of their fellow soldiers, removing fingerprints, weather stains and grit ahead of the crowds that would appear on the somber day hours later.
“Every name is a story,” Zinke says, “and there are so many names.”
It was an especially poignant day for Zinke, who served 23 years as a Navy SEAL and whose job now includes overseeing military monuments on the National Mall as well as part of Arlington National Cemetery and battlefields where tens of thousands of soldiers gave their lives.
He’s the first Interior secretary in nearly half a century with military experience, a distinction he says he takes seriously. He recalls as a kid seeing doughboys from World War I marching in parades, same for World War II soldiers. His step-dad served in Korea. He watched Vietnam on the TV news as a high school freshman knowing that seniors in his school were going to head there soon.
He served in Iraq (where he earned two bronze stars), after training, he notes, from instructors who fought the Viet Cong. And he says he has a special place for Vietnam-era soldiers who faced harassment after returning from the unpopular war.
The proof is stark, he noted.
Washington is dotted with white granite memorials to wars and historical figures, to generals and luminaries. The Vietnam Wall is black, tucked into the landscape without fountains or stars or columns.
When Zinke returned from war, he noted, it was to adulation, thanks, cheers and bands. When soldiers came back from Vietnam, they sometimes threw their uniforms in the trash before leaving the airport, fearing a backlash.
“A lot of the reason I received what I did and my generation [did] is because you did not,” Zinke told a crowd of Vietnam veterans at the wall Saturday afternoon. “I think as a nation we should be ashamed at how we viewed your service, your dedication. The monument behind me, I think, is not a tribute to victory or defeat, it’s a tribute to remembrance. We should never run away from our history as a country, we should learn.”
Zinke said Saturday his military service is helping in his new role and noted that because he served on the House Armed Services Committee, he knows the current military leaders and is able to work with them on Interior-related issues such as test and training ranges on federal land.
“We should work with the military and be a partner rather than an adversary,” Zinke said.
And he’s pushing to hire returning veterans to help give them a good, and rewarding job.
For some vets with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries, getting them out in nature to help build trails can be satisfying and helpful.
“It teaches a skill,” he notes. “It’s measurable, like building a trail is measurable. There’s satisfaction of a job well done.”