Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three tourists to Jamaica reports getting harassed; half of them are hassled to buy drugs. September/October 2014 new-big-one-4

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