Last night a fire swept through one of the few structures on the National Mall not made of stone or metal.
The kiosk remembering Vietnam servicemembers which sold unit insignia, patches, pins, and other memorabilia stood just between the Lincoln and Vietnam Memorials. It caught fire at around 11 pm Monday night and by the time DC Fire and EMS arrived on scene the structure was fully engulfed in flame. According to Fire Department spokesman Pete Piringer, the fire appears accidental and may have started in a space heater in the shelter.
The kiosk was manned by Vietnam Vets, specifically a group that have admittedly refused to go softly into that good night. While loosely defined, the group generally feels that not enough was done (or is being done) to account for servicemembers Missing in Action, specifically Prisoners of War they feel were not returned at the end of the War.
For many years, these Vets had a much greater presence on the Mall, but by the early 1990's numerous complaints had come in regarding the commercialization of the area. To finance the various booths, the vets had taken to selling t-shirts and other tourist items, often with nothing to do with the War or really any political cause. As their permit to be on the Mall was as a demonstration, many people, including many Vietnam Veterans, objected to the commercial nature of the kiosks. In a 1993 Washington Post article, Jan Scruggs, President of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, noted "It's like a flea market. It's a K mart on the Mall. It is everything that the memorial is not supposed to be."
In 1997, a Federal Appeals Court upheld a National Park Service ban on the sale of t-shirts. Deprived of their main money maker, most of the kiosks gradually disappeared, with one remaining until this morning.
I've walked by this booth no doubt hundreds of times, and from time to time I'd chat with the Veterans manning it. It was occupied 24 hours a day, and often the gentlemen inside were happy to have someone to talk to. While quite often I'd find that their views tended to the wild-eyed, I admired their lonely persistence in keeping alive a cause they sincerely believed in.
No word yet on whether the kiosk will be rebuilt, and even I am conflicted as to whether it should. But as my friend and fellow tour guide Robert Pohl put it, "Whatever you may have felt about their presence, this isn't how it should have ended." Indeed.