Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Healing Power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

• April 23, 2010 • 11:00 AM

New research finds visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial helps vets suffering from PTSD. But a single visit isn’t enough.

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.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.