Maya Lin Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom


Maya Lin awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama (Photo/Getty Images)

Maya Lin is a 2016 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on Tuesday, Nov. 22.

In 1981, Maya rose to fame when she was chosen as the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., now known as The Wall.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is composed of two walls spanning 246 feet in length that stand as a testament to human sacrifice. Inscribed upon it are the names of the more than 58,000 men and women who died or remain unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. It is one of the most poignant memorials in America.

At the time, the Vietnam War was the nation’s longest war and one of the most divisive. America was in search of healing and reconciliation. In 1979, Jan Scruggs founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) and spearheaded the effort to build a national memorial.  In 1980, a national design competition was launched.  

1,421 entries were submitted and the judges unanimously chose entry #1026. The winner was an unknown Maya Lin, a 21-year-old undergraduate student from Yale University. The design would be “a long, polished, black stone wall, emerging from and receding into the earth.”

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Maya Lin’s original design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Like the war itself, the results of the contest proved to be controversial.

After Maya Lin’s design was chosen, outrage ensued. Many were offended by its nontraditional design. Its color, black, was detested for its “sad” and “negative” connotation. It was referred to as a “black gash of shame” and a “degrading ditch.” Many also felt that an Asian-American should not be the designer.

It wasn’t until after the memorial was dedicated in November of 1982 that it became a national treasure. Her design was revered.

Maya chose the names to be listed in chronological order by date of casualty, showing the war as a series of individual human sacrifices and giving each name a special place in history. She chose black granite for the walls that reflected the images of the surrounding trees, lawns and monuments. The memorial is also placed right between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, bringing The Wall into historical context of our country.



A veteran touches a name on The Wall, Veterans Day, 2016.


Today, The Wall is one of the most beloved memorials in America welcoming 5.6 million visitors each year.

Jim Knotts, CEO of VVMF released a statement on Lin’s Presidential Medal of Freedom:

“The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund will be forever grateful for Maya’s artistry. Her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was controversial when it was first introduced to the public, but 35 years later, her design has proven to be a remarkable piece of art that has changed the way a nation mourns. We continue to see Vietnam veterans start or continue their healing process when they stand in front of The Wall.  And younger generations continue to be awed by the scope of the sacrifice as the walk the long walls and realize every name is a life cut short.  They begin to learn what it means to serve our country.  The Wall, through it’s simple but brilliant design, helped to heal a generation and our nation.  The Wall began a body of work in both art and architecture that will continue to impact our country for generations to come.  It is wholly appropriate that we recognize Maya Lin for her contributions with our nation’s highest civilian honor.”

In its uniqueness, this design proved to be groundbreaking. It became a place to come to grips with loss – a sacred place of healing.

Maya has since pursued a celebrated career in art and architecture, also designing the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. All of her pieces have collectively changed America’s landscape but none so profound as the tribute to the “Americans who fell in Vietnam.”