"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.