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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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."