More than a million people visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial each
year, and they often leave items behind to help them pay tribute or
heal or say goodbye to the thousands of American service members who
died in the more-than-decade-long conflict.
Every morning, park rangers pick up those objects and bring them to Duery Felton. He has been the proud curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection in Landover, Maryland for 18 years. Since the memorial was completed in 1982, more than 100,000 items have entered that collection.
Pieces of lives carefully preserved
Felton unlocks a glass cabinet filled with objects, each one identified with a unique number. His white gloved hands gingerly reach out and cradle a champagne bottle, stored with two goblets.
"There's still residue from the champagne," he says, adding "I have yet to clean the goblets because of the residue. It speaks so much."
He moves on to a case of medals and points to a Medal of Honor, explaining it was the only one to be voluntarily returned by the recipient to the federal government.
"The person who was awarded this was a chaplain in Vietnam, and he saved something like 18 lives. And even though he surrendered the medal, I've often wondered if he couldn't surrender it all. The medal is incomplete. There should be a lanyard attached to the medal."
There are also diplomas and graduation tassels with notes - perhaps to fathers the graduates never knew - saying, "This is for you, Pops."
"Most of the objects left at the wall are left anonymously," Felton says. "It's very seldom we have a definitive reason as to why [someone] did what they did."
"I look at us as voyeurs," he admits, "because we're looking over the shoulders of people leaving things."
Every object tells a story
In a temperature-controlled room of the preservation facility, Felton walks past rows and rows of small blue plastic boxes containing objects left at the memorial, from books service members enjoyed reading, to barbed wire signifying prisoners of war or missing in action. He stops in front of a wooden box that looks a little like a coffin.
As he takes the top off, he says, "You know that the U.S. government has been working with the Vietnamese government to recover items from crash sites. This is a helicopter blade that Sergeant Jerry Elliot was in, in 1968. And this is the blade that was recovered from the crash site. And someone left this."
At least 7,000 women served in Vietnam, most in a medical capacity. They are also remembered with items in this collection, such as a little pink stethoscope. Felton laughs as he says he was told that the nurses were required to wear jungle fatigues, but underneath the camouflage they would wear the frilliest undergarments.
"They always wanted to remind themselves that they were women, and they would always overly splash themselves with the perfumes."
The people's history
Some of the items in the collection are put on temporary exhibit, and when they are, Felton says he always insists that a photograph taken during that time be included.
"I want people to understand that these people were young. According to statistics, the average age of an infantryman in Vietnam was about 19."
He pulls out one photo.
"Now this is from the U.S. Navy Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois. There's no date on it. But wherever these people are, they're frozen in time. They're forever young, perhaps innocent," he says with a chuckle, adding "I don't know… [they were in] the Navy!"
"I want people to understand that these people wherever they are, they were alive, they had family, and also understand [that] death is never in isolation. It always sets up a concentric circle. A person dies, that circle goes out and touches spouse, children, grandchildren, associates, whatever."
There are some anti-war items in the collection, such as a torn-up draft card and a naval officer's ceremonial sword, broken in half. But most items have a personal, not a political, meaning.
As he surveys the thousands of objects in this facility, Duery Felton reflects that in the past, history was written from the top down. Not here.
"I tell people that this collection is different. This collection is being written by the everyday person. It's being curated by the public. All the emotions of life are reflected in this collection. It's not just about dying...it's also a celebration of life. This collection is great literature."
Traces of what might have been
When objects are brought in, they're isolated to make sure there aren't any destructive insects on them. The hundreds of U.S. flags people leave behind are donated to schools, and everything else is carefully catalogued by Lisa Ricketts. She types out a description of each item into a database. After that, she bags them in plastic and puts them into boxes for storage.
She says the toughest part of her job is reading the letters people have at the memorial.
"From, you know, girlfriends back in the sixties… moms. Especially moms… writing letters to their sons or daughter and having the letters returned. [Letters] talking about, say, the last time that they were together. They were on the hill, drinking Milwaukee's Best, and doing whatever they do, but… 'You were supposed to be my forever and have my children.' That's real touching to me."
Felton says the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - and the chance to leave objects behind - helped the nation heal from a very divisive conflict. But he says that's only part of the story.
"What you see are the tangibles - the things that can be touched, felt, that can be quantified, that can be counted. But I know for a fact that there are things that are not left at the memorial. People come, and they don't leave things. But they're part of the memorial experience. How do you quantify that?"