The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

Special Commemorative Issue, November 2002
 
   
 

WHAT'S LEFT AT THE WALL

By Judith Speizer Crandell
with photos and captions by michael keating


"This is the place where memories weave, where hearts heal. This is a place where people can feel what Lincoln called the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land…" Thomas B. Allen, Offerings at the Wall.


Nowhere is the connection between memories of patriots lost in a war and the hearts of their survivors more evident that at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A note with a baseball and mit left at the Wall says, "I've missed throwing the baseball to you. You have been on my mind almost daily since 6-9-69. You wouldn't believe my big three boys and one little girl who have taken your place and now play catch with me..." Another offering, a framed sonogram is accompanied by the words, "Happy Father's Day Dad! Here are the first two images of your first grandchild. I don't know if it's a boy or a girl-if the baby is a boy, he'll be named after you ... This child will know how I have grown to know and love you-even though the last time I saw you I was only four months old. I love you!" The Wall has become a national shrine where pilgrims, still carrying the grief from the Vietnam War, come to confront their feelings of loss and anger and to seek healing. Consecrated as a place of "remembrance and reflection," The Wall has done more since its dedication 13 years ago to heal the wounds of a grieving nation than anything else since the war ended.

In viewing the variety and sheer number of objects the 20,000,000 to 25,000,000 visitors have left behind since the November 13,1982, dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, there truly is a feeling that The Wall has become a "repository for keepsakes of grief."

Presently there are 58,196 names inscribed on The Wall, of dead or Missing in Action soldiers in Vietnam. What brings the public, from all over the world, to touch these names with their tears, decorate the black granite with ribbons and badges, letters and plaques-offerings to the dead or unretrieved from America's most unpopular war? And why do they leave the things they do?

Duery Felton, Jr., insists that while those who fought in Vietnam shared many things in common, there is no singular Vietnam experience. This fact is proven by the myriad of things people leave behind. Each object tells a personal story that the donor feels must never be forgotten.

And now Offerings From the Wall: Artifacts From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, a photo essay of selected artifacts by Turner Publishing, has become a window to that collection, says Felton. As a Vietnam veteran and the curator of what is left behind at The Wall, his opinion is one born of experience.

Felton is the keeper of these tangible memories left at The Wall. He catalogs and stores objects that hundreds of thousands of visitors leave behind as their personal memorial to the men and women who died in Vietnam. From a payback of two cans of sardines to a sonogram of a yet-unborn grandchild, anything and everything is an offering. Two times a day the National Park Service (NPS) collects, tags, and archives the offerings. These are then sent to a regional facility in suburban Maryland. Here, a select group of individuals can ask Felton or his assistant, Tony Porco, to unlock what appears to the untrained eye to be an oversized high school locker, slip on a pair of white gloves, and draw forth an item from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection (VVMC). Cataloging items is difficult because of the variety of objects left behind. Lps, letters, notes, audiotapes, 8 mm film, POW/MIA bracelets, photographs, stuffed animals, and sacred Native American objects have all been propped against the cool, black granite as markers to husbands, brothers, sisters, and fathers lost in Vietnam. Felton and Porco have devised unique archival methods for these extraordinary items.

The lockers that house the collection also hold the grief, joy, memories, wishes-votive offerings to say: You are not forgotten, I was there, I miss you, You did not die in vain, I love you. Felton says, "The collection is anonymous, known only by the donors. It's a direct communication to the recipients," those whose names are on The Wall.

Boy Scouts too young to know the Vietnam War as anything but history leave their badges when they celebrate their Jamboree in the capital; widows leave their wedding rings; children leave their teddy bears.

The meanings are private, even when explained. "It is this prevailing sense of mystery that gives the objects an aesthetic unity," comments David Guynes, NPS site manager, in The Last Firehose: A Guide to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1987.

The Artifacts, published by the NPS Museum Archeological and Storage Facility, says that the memorial visitors "are providing us with the documents to tell the history of the Vietnam War generation." Beginning with the symbolic throwing of a Purple Heart into the wet cement as the memorial was being completed, to the footlocker-type constructions left by classrooms of students learning about the war in school books, the VVMC has become "America's Billboard" says Felton, a symbolic protest site, a gauge of public opinion and sentiment.

"This is a different collection," Felton reminds us. "We are seeing the consequence of the memorial, the consequence of the Vietnam War. We're using the collection now. Most museums deal with people dead for hundreds of years."

The NPS was named the steward of The Wall, the three-man statue unofficially known as "The Three Soldiers," and the Vietnam Women's Memorial. But for all intents and purposes, Felton says, the public is the steward of The Wall. The collection is a living history created and written by the public. Everything is collected and archived except American flags and live plants. Everything is valued, even the Popsicle stick with a message scribbled on it which is now on view at the Smithsonian. The reason? Because in that moment when that donor stood at The Wall, he wanted to say something so important that he used whatever was available to say it.

Felton says there have been pivotal points throughout the years that affected the nation's view of the war and influenced what people leave at The Wall. One such event occurred in 1988 when Ronald and Nancy Reagan visited the memorial and left a note with a message saying it was honorable to be a Vietnam veteran, a sentiment the country was ready to hear. After that validation, letters began arriving chronicling how veterans have gotten on with their lives.

In 1990-91, there was the build-up in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf War, and the ensuing welcome-home parade. Though these veterans fought their own war, many chose to leave their combat awards and their medals at the memorial for the Vietnam veteran. A Gulf War Marine colonel whose father was killed in Vietnam chose The Wall rather than the Marine memorial as the place to leave his own awards in remembrance.

The latest historical marker that has affected the offerings was Robert MacNamara's book. His mea culpa has caused a wave of anger among veterans and others, as evidenced by the offerings left at The Wall. One veteran sent a display that includes a tupperware container holding ashes of the book he photographed being burnt.

While there have been social and historical events that have influenced what people leave, some things cannot be explained. A Special Forces soldier broke into his friend's footlocker and took a carton of cigarettes, intending to replace it with two cans of sardines. But his friend was killed before he could pay him back. Finding his friend's name on The Wall, the former soldier left the two cans there. Felton, who has an intimate knowledge of the collection, asks, "Why after 20 years does someone return two cans of sardines? Why the need for release?" This is part of the ongoing mystery of the human soul that The Wall stirs up, confronts, and heals.

Even enemy paraphernalia has been coming in recently. "We're no longer enemies," Felton says. "It's usually after 40 years, two generations passing, that a country [begins] to deal compassionately with coming to blows with the enemy." It has been half that time. But enough healing has occurred for some veterans to allow them to come to terms with their part in the war and give up items they brought home with them.

The collection is now being used for the treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As the first phase of treatment, many groups are brought to Washington to experience the memorial. They are then given a private showing at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History display, "An Exhibition of Objects Left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial."

Each piece left tells a story ... a can of fruit cocktail was left because a nurse's medical unit seemed to have a high number of casualties with stomach wounds, which got infected after the patient ate the canned fruit. It got to the point that fruit cocktail was almost banned. A stuffed dog was left for a civilian woman killed in a jeep accident. But even with explanations, the mystery remains. The questions echo, Why now? Why this? What are you really leaving?

Felton feels what he is doing is "collecting dreams deferred, things that might have been, things that have happened due to sacrifices." He sees this memorial as having a purity of purpose, an absence of contrivance, which follows the concentric circle of life, and therefore, all the emotions from loss to gain. He points to the sonogram of the unborn grandchild and notes the joy of such a leaving.

The last of the original granite from Bangalore, India, is being aged so that when repairs are needed, they will be done inconspicuously. For some, at least, The Wall has helped in a subtle but powerful way to repair the lives a highly volatile war in Southeast Asia tore apart.

The objects and memories left at The Wall tell us that each man and woman's personal experience relating to this memorial, this war, while "openly shared, will ultimately remain his or her own. And that is the mystery of the human spirit.

   

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