From the Archives: Honoring Vietnam Veterans

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Cover of In Country

Courtesy of Viking Penguin

Although Operation Homecoming, Great American Voices, and the Shakespeare in American Communities military tour are the Arts Endowment's first forays into bringing the arts directly to military bases, the NEA has in the past supported projects that affect military personnel and their families. The best known is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. The Arts Endowment helped fund a site study and assisted with the design competition that drew 1,421 entries. Eight internationally recognized artists and designers judged the submissions. The competition was won by Maya Lin, then an undergraduate student at Yale University. A long slash of polished black granite set below ground level, the design, Lin said, is intended to evoke a sense of loss and provide a cathartic healing experience. Robert Doubek, an Air Force intelligence officer in Vietnam in 1969 and co-founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, said "The memorial was designed to stimulate emotion and reflection. Visitors find themselves swept up in it, surrounded by it." Dedicated in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become one of the most visited sites in the nation's capital.

Reflection of a young woman amongst the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Photo: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

Sometimes the artists supported by the Arts Endowment produce work that unexpectedly touches military families. In 1983, Southern writer Bobbie Ann Mason received an NEA Literature Fellowship. With the grant money, Mason wrote over the following two years her first novel, In Country. The novel follows a high school girl's quest for knowledge about her father, who died in Vietnam just before she was born. Mason said of her book, "Because of the moment in our history, the subject struck a chord in many readers -- especially high school and college students, and Vietnam veterans and their families. However, its appeal has not been limited to readers who would specifically identify with the story. In the 1980s, Vietnam emerged in our culture as a legitimate and compelling topic for discussion, rather than something to be hidden in shame. I am proud to say that my novel became part of that national discussion."

In 1988, the book was made into a movie, and director Norman Jewison used the Western Kentucky chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America as advisors and participants in the film. "Because of this cooperation," said Mason, "many Vietnam vets who had not yet been able to speak up about their experiences found an outlet for their voices, something that told their story and helped to give them pride and dignity."

Mason later participated in the Operation Homecoming initiative, leading a workshop at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, in July 2004. The most recent edition of In Country includes an afterword by Mason about her Operation Homecoming experience.