In the summer of 2011, I was in Camp Pendleton in southern California participating in a training exercise when a bit of administrative business took a colleague and me to the West Coast headquarters of the Marine Special Operations Command. As we were leaving, my colleague spotted another Marine officer he knew in the parking lot. Walking over to say hello, I couldn’t help noticing that this officer seemed exhausted, as though he had just been through a tough workout in the gym, and that the effort to get into his car seemed to have taken even more out of him. A second or two later I saw the cause of his trouble: He was missing both of his legs.
As it turns out, he had just been through a tough workout. As a team leader in Afghanistan the year prior, this officer—Matthew Lampert—had stepped on an IED inside a compound in Helmand Province and suffered a double amputation. By the summer of 2011 he was well into his rehabilitation and already transitioning into building up his strength so he could return to Afghanistan. As the second in command of a special operations company. Using two prosthetic legs.
It takes more than a double amputation to keep Matthew Lampert out of a fight. His story is, in a word, amazing. It is a tribute to personal determination on a level few of us can understand, and also to remarkable advances in medical and rehabilitative science and, it must be said, to the military’s dedication to providing those wounded overseas with the benefits of such advances. (It is worth pointing out that the military’s medical system is separate from the VA’s.)
Among the reasons the science of rehabilitation has advanced so far in recent years is that there has been no shortage of customers from the military. This is not necessarily because casualty rates from Iraq and Afghanistan have been historically higher than the average, but because the quality of battlefield medicine itself has undergone a quantum leap since the major wars of the 20th century, leading to more servicemen surviving their injuries. The improvements involve simple advances—we stopped worrying that tourniqueting wounds would cause unnecessary amputations, realizing that not tourniqueting them was causing unnecessary deaths—as well as major improvements in medical techniques and, most impressively, the logistics of evacuation. With very few exceptions, an American serviceman will find himself in a full-scale operating theater within an hour of being wounded.
Combined with improved body armor and the proliferation of armored vehicles, wounds on the battlefield are survivable at rates that simply didn’t apply before. This has had a side effect, however. There are now a proportionally higher number of veterans with life-long disabilities.
Add these men and women to the population of those living with disabilities as a result of earlier wars, and you have every reason for a monument on the National Mall. Such a place has just opened to the public. It is a small, quiet, and respectful triangular plaza near the Capitol building, built in a location—like the proposed Eisenhower Memorial—where an architect has to consider how best to shield his space from its surroundings. The perimeter challenges at this site, at the intersection of C and 2nd Streets, Southwest, include the appalling Health and Human Services headquarters to the west and Interstate 395 disappearing into the 3rd Street Tunnel to the south. Such is the lot of the newer memorials on the perimeter of the Mall. In this case the wise and logical decision was to hide such views behind walls, leaving open the hypotenuse of the triangle that points towards the Capitol and the Botanic Garden.
The memorial includes some of the same architectural elements as a number of recent military-oriented memorials in Washington. There are images etched in glass and a number of quotes carved into stone walls around the plaza. Both the Air Force Memorial in Virginia and the Korean War Memorial further west on the Mall come to mind, though this new design, again, is subdued by comparison. Where the Air Force Memorial has as a centerpiece three soaring columns meant to evoke the maneuvers of high powered jets in flight, and the Korean War Memorial has its rain-soaked infantry platoon on patrol, the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial has at its center a black reflecting pool shaped in a star at one end, and a flame meant to emerge at its middle. (The flame was off, when I visited.)
The quotations themselves tell a complicated tale. With the exception of two large inscriptions of the words of Washington and Eisenhower on wounded veterans (though, strangely, not Lincoln, whose call to care for ‘him who shall have borne the battle’ in the Second Inaugural is the most famous presidential summons of attention for veterans) the rest of the quotes come from wounded veterans themselves. Some of the snippets seem to be meant to inspire: "For every tragic story of a life unraveled by military battle, there are a dozen tales of individuals who have managed to triumph over the harrowing experiences of war and pain." Others more explicitly communicate an experience of suffering: "People didn’t understand that it is so painful to discuss. As I’m talking to you right now, there are tears running down my face. Since the war, I’ve been confined to a wheelchair and have tried to live a good life. However, I relive the war every day."
The somewhat ambivalent emotional message is a testament to the complicated experiences of the veterans themselves. Outcomes like Matthew Lampert’s are at one end of a spectrum. Other outcomes are crueler. The invisible and awful legacy of a traumatic brain injury, for example, can be very difficult to manage, and a relentlessly boosterish memorial would be a dishonest tribute to those living with such a disability.
Since the aftermath of Vietnam, Washington’s military memorial architecture has been composed in both major and minor keys. Maya Lin’s stark, mournful Vietnam memorial introduced the non-heroic tone into the song. But those who built the commemoration of World War Two still made something that was more a tribute to the bravery of a national effort, rather than the commemoration of a tragedy. Other memorials, like the Korean War Memorial, are in between, leaving visitors with the mixed emotional response one might feel after a memorial service where the participants can’t decide whether they are mourning the dead or celebrating a life.
The Disabled Veterans Memorial is also emotionally in between. Not because of architectural confusion, but because the experience it commemorates incorporates both keys of the American military experience: the heroism, and the suffering.