WASHINGTON — Vice President Pence’s work glove quickly soaked through with water as he scrubbed the names etched in the black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Saturday.
Pence, the son of a Korean War veteran and father of a Marine, would later lay a wreath and deliver a tribute to veterans at Arlington National Cemetery.
But he began the morning dressed for cleaning duty, arriving on the National Mall in blue jeans, old cowboy boots and yellow gloves soon after the sun rose over the Capitol dome in the distance.
“Good morning all,” Pence said to the group of about 40 volunteers. “Mike Pence. Great of you all to be here. Happy Veterans Day.”
The other cleaners, employees of NewDay USA, a mortgage company that serves veterans, had already prepared the wall for the cleaning by removing the flowers, flags, photos, boots, helmets, wreaths and other mementos lying at the base.
Besides leaving offerings, visitors are also encouraged to make stencils of the 58,286 names of those who were killed or missing in action during the war. Volunteers regularly help clean the wall, keeping its surface as “reflective and peaceful” as designer Maya Lin intended.
Cleaners usually spray the wall with hoses before and after scrubbing with large brushes. But Saturday’s below-freezing temperatures required a more hands-on approach with sponges and paper towels.
“I don’t know why I’m wearing gloves because I can’t feel my fingers at this point,” one volunteer said.
After arriving at the memorial with his wife, Pence carried an orange cleaning bucket with the message “Let’s Do This” to an area close to the center of the wall.
“You got a spot for us to work?” he asked.
Wylie Gilbert, 30, of Maryland, gave Pence some cleaning tips – scrub hard, up and down, left and right.
“You scrub and I’ll dry,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said to the vice president.
Pence, though, ended up doing most of his own scrubbing and drying, except for some higher-up spots that the taller Zinke got for him.
Robert Salazar was the top name and one of the sections of wall Pence cleaned.
While the vice president kept his work gloves on, Karen Pence tried scrubbing barehanded, which quickly led to red fingers.
“How are you doing dear?” her husband asked at one point.
Gilbert said afterwards that Karen Pence told him she didn’t mind the hands-on work as it gave her time to reflect.
“Where are you from, ma’am?” Gilbert asked as they worked alongside each other.
“We’re from Indiana,” Karen Pence responded.
Gilbert told the Pences he serves in the Army National Guard in addition to working at NewDay USA.
“Thank you for your service,” the vice president said.
“Thank you for yours — and for coming out here this morning,” Gilbert responded.
Pence also talked with Park Ranger James Pierce, who was injured in Afghanistan when serving in the National Guard in 2012. Pierce, 34, was one of three survivors from an attack by a suicide bomber, which killed 56 people.
Talking to the volunteers after Pence left, Pierce called being in the Park Service his dream job. After multiple reconstructive surgeries, Pierce interned with the Park Service through Operation Guardian, before being offered a full-time job.
“This is pretty cool,” Pierce said of Pence’s visit. “The vice president comes out and washes the wall.”
He told the volunteers about meeting a wheel chair-bound veteran who came to the National Mall through an Honor Flight, trips that bring veterans from around the country to the war memorials.
After Pierce shared his history with the veteran, the man stood up and saluted him. The woman with the veteran, in tears, told Pierce that was the first time he’d stood and saluted in four years. He died soon after the trip, Pierce said.
“You never know what impression you have,” Pierce told the group. “You volunteer for the men and women who laid down their lives for our great country.”
Before Pence left to get ready for his Arlington National Cemetery visit, he posed for a group photo at the center of the monument.
“When the American flag waves …” NewDay CEO Tom Lynch said, “We wave with it!” the group shouted back.