A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

October 2001/November 2001

America's Bulletin Board

By Jim Belshaw

"This collection will burn you out--and burn you up--if you do not handle it correctly."

-Duery Felton, Jr., Curator, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection.

At the National Park Service Museum Resource Center in Landover, Maryland, Duery Felton and a handful of volunteers, all Vietnam veterans, opened envelopes, cataloged artifacts, and examined items left at The Wall. One picked up a Ziploc bag. It held a neckerchief and a photograph of the man wearing the neckerchief in Vietnam. The volunteer pulled back on the bag's plastic zipper and opened it.

"Everyone got deathly quiet," Felton said. "When the bag was opened, the smell of Vietnam permeated the room. I mean, it got quiet. You have to understand these were all combat veterans. And I mean, it got quiet."

Felton has a standing rule about the artifacts with which he works: "Read but don't read."

When he helped the Smithsonian Institution with an exhibition on loan, Felton told the conservators that the letters left at The Wall must be placed in clear, plastic sleeves. He gave them the warning, too: "Read but don't read." He told them the standing rule was one of the things you learned when you spend fourteen years of your life with the history people leave at The Wall.

You look at the letters, and you read them, too, but you don't let them get too deep inside of you. You learn to keep your distance. Felton said someone at the Smithsonian made the mistake of taking them in--a reader who went too far and could read no more. The work continued, the letters were placed into plastic sleeves, but they were no longer read.

"There are things in here such as the `We regret to inform you' telegrams,’" Felton said. "There are lost-in-action reports, unedited and raw. If you were to read all this and take it inside yourself, you would lose your mind. I'll be honest with you, you would."

He has a long-established agreement with his National Park Service supervisor. If he needs to leave the room, he can. No questions asked.

"Sometimes I will just get up and walk away," he said. "Sometimes something will come in from my [Army] unit. That's happened here. They understand it. They don't ask questions or anything. I just go out the door. If I didn't have that kind of leeway, I would probably lose my mind. I could not deal with this collection. It will burn you out, it will burn you up -- it's that intense. Early on, we had these manila envelopes. One had this guy's combat diary in it. I had to walk out the door that day."

Duery Felton

Duery Felton nearly died in Vietnam, an experience he refuses to describe to this day other than to say he almost became a name on The Wall. He was an RTO with the First Infantry. He has been the collection's curator since 1986.

In the early 1980s, after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated, visitors started leaving mementos and messages. The site manager invited Felton to examine the items. On the day of his visit, the Voice of America happened to be doing a program

There were items no one could identify. Felton recognized them immediately--pajamas given out in hospital wards, messages scribbled on a helmet--"Don't shoot. I'm short."

In 1986, when the National Park Service (NPS) commissioned a consultant to determine how to handle the growing collection, it became clear that someone with knowledge of the time period and the Vietnam experience would be vital to the proper cataloging and preserving of the artifacts.

Felton came in as a volunteer and soon became an NPS employee, he says, "seduced" by the collection. He speaks of Odysseus by way of explanation.

"When Odysseus came upon the Sirens, he had his crew stuff their ears with wax," he said. "But he had himself tied to the mast because he wanted to hear the Sirens' song. This collection is like the Sirens. It will seduce you, and if you're not careful, it will crash you upon the rocks."

He says Providence brought him to the collection--that of the nine million Vietnam-era veterans and three million who served in-country, for some reason he has been chosen to see over the memories left at The Wall. Pointing out that a visitor to any museum sees only ten percent of the collection on display, he uses the same percentage to measure his contribution to The Wall collection. He calls himself nothing more than a "conduit," a vehicle to disseminate history.

"I'm not going to take credit for all this," Felton said. "There are a lot of people behind the scenes you don't see. You're just seeing me. There are a lot of people interested in this collection. The collection needed structure and a lot of other things when NPS took it over. It was just a baby then. It needed time to grow and become strong. It has now."

Felton gives frequent presentations on The Wall collection. He recently did so as a VVA-sponsored lecturer at Bennington College in Vermont. He said he uses these opportunities to launch a "preemptive strike to defuse rumors that circulate about what happens to these things."

The first artifact was a Purple Heart, thrown into the wet foundation concrete of The Wall in early 1981 by the brother of a dead veteran. Two years later, when The Wall was dedicated, a tradition had taken hold. In 1984, when the memorial was turned over to the NPS, the Park Service began examining ways in which it could deal with the things being left there.

The first group of memorabilia numbered 554. Today's collection exceeds 64,000 and grows daily.

Objects are collected twice a day by NPS rangers--more frequently during inclement weather. The objects are tagged, given an identification number and kept in museum storage bags for transportation to the Museum and Resource Center (MRC). At the MRC, the artifacts are identified, researched, and cataloged with detailed descriptions.

The artifacts are stored in 50,000-square foot, state-of-the art facility that Felton said is too-often described as a "warehouse."

"This is a storage preservation facility," he said. "We are part of about forty historical collections that are housed here. When you say `storage preservation,' it doesn't register with the public. So it's not unusual for the news media to come in and use the term `warehouse.' That word has a connotation of a rodent-infested, leaking roof, dank building. We try to stay away from it."

Felon said another common rumor he must defuse is that the NPS is throwing away items left at The Wall. With the exception of live plant matter and unaltered U.S. flags, everything is saved. If flags--one of the most common items left at The Wall--have not been personalized in any way, they are recycled, often given to park rangers to hand out at The Wall or sent to exhibitions or delivered to VA hospitals. Live plant matter is not kept to prevent pest infestations that jeopardize every collection in the Maryland facility.

"We had a necklace made of corn come in," Felton said. "It had been painted. It had worms. It slipped past everyone. We had to use a freezing technique to solve the problem."

He points to the constant evolution of the collection, calling it "alive" and "vibrant." It is a social history reflecting America's past and a present that goes beyond its involvement in Vietnam.

Felton calls The Wall and its artifacts "America's bulletin board."

"People leave statements, and they're not just about Vietnam," he said. "Over the years, people have used it as a protest site. When America went to the Gulf War, we had placards that said 'No Oil For Blood' left here. Between 1,200 and 1,500 informal gatherings are held at the memorial each year. The public decides its memorials, and the public has decided that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is their memorial. It has become a symbolic memorial. When the Vietnam generation dies off, I believe it will continue to be a symbolic memorial because the public interacts with it--the children and grandchildren of Vietnam veterans."

Pointing out that only the Vietnam War has produced more books written by enlisted personnel than officers, Felton says the tradition of the common man and woman writing history continues at The Wall. He describes it as history written from "the ground up instead of from the top down."

It is an evolving history that Felton says has made him re-think his relationship to the Vietnam War. Through the artifacts, he has found himself seeing the war through the eyes of people he had not before considered, including his parents.

A few years ago, his mother gave him tapes that he sent from Vietnam. They had found exchanging tapes was more reliable than written letters and made a habit of it during his time in the war. When his mother gave him the tapes recently, she told him something he had not known.

"She said she had mixed feelings about receiving the tapes," he said. "She said if she received a tape, she knew I was OK. But in the background, she'd hear explosions and guns going off. I realized that I had become immune to these sounds. Vietnam was crazy. You could have these things going on around you, people literally fighting for their lives, and if it wasn't happening to you, it was `quiet' where you sat. I had become immune to the sounds of war. My mother had kept quiet all these years."

In the artifacts at his workplace, he read comment books from the public. "My father is a Vietnam veteran," one said, ‘‘and he's never talked about it and now I understand why."

A woman approached him one day and said she wanted to apologize for being an antiwar protester. She'd just seen the collection and Felton had given the introductory speech. She was crying when she spoke to him.

He read notes of gratitude written to corpsman and notes of anguish written by corpsman. One note thanked a medic for saving a life; the next note, written by a medic, wondered if he'd done enough to save a life.

"So I'm reading one person saying, ‘Doc, you saved my life,’ and Doc is wondering if he did enough. I'm reading this and I'm thinking that I'd love to tell Doc, ‘Yeah, you saved his life,’" Felton said.

He has seen "hard-ass" journalists come to the collection thinking they were immune to its Siren song and always leaving changed, having found they are not immune at all.

"This collection is reflective of one of the most precipitous moments in American history," Felton said. "It is uncensored and unedited. It is vibrant and alive and always changing. It is history written by the everyday person. It is unique. The Vietnam War grabbed this nation by its throat and it has yet to let go. This collection reflects that."


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