Unusual collection from Vietnam Veterans Memorial reflects a unique war

Curator Duery Felton Jr. holds open a pocket Bible from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection at a National Park Service museum storehouse in Landover, Md., June 15. Dated Veterans Day 1986 and written by an Army medic, the inscription reads: “I carried this every day, on every mission. I leave it at the Wall in memory of my friends and our patients. Dale E. Lacher.” (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

LANDOVER, Md. (CNS) — Duery Felton Jr. calls them “icons.”

The religious articles gathered up each day at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington are just a small part of the estimated 400,000 items left in honor of a veteran and collected twice daily by National Park Service employees since the memorial opened 30 years ago.

But for Felton, curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection held at the Museum Resource Center in Landover, many of the items represent a mystery that will never be solved.

He holds up a small cross on a pedestal. A piece of paper affixed to the bottom says the cross was made from square nails used to build the original St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Kasson, Minn., in 1873.

But that doesn’t answer Felton’s many questions: Who left the item and for whom? What did the church mean to the veteran or the person who left the cross?

“Most of the three-dimensional objects in the collection come with no explanation of what it is or what it means,” he said.

There is even a box of rocks left at the memorial on the National Mall. Felton isn’t sure, but he thinks some veterans bring the rocks as a symbol that they have “put their burdens down” and left their bad memories of Vietnam at the memorial.

“This is a collection unlike any other,” Felton said. It is the only collection in which the public decides what will be included, the only one made up of items left by the living for the dead and the only one in which “the bias of what is worthy is taken out” of the curator’s hands, he said.

But Felton believes that is more than appropriate for a memorial to those who served in “a completely different kind of war” — the only U.S. war that was never officially declared.

“It’s Vietnam, so you can leave logic out the door,” he said.

With the exception of plant matter, food and unaltered U.S. flags, every item left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is preserved and cataloged. The flags are given to veterans’ hospitals, visitors to the memorial or civic groups such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.

The collection started almost by accident when a park ranger who thought the items had been left inadvertently started a kind of lost and found, thinking those who had left the items would return for them one day.

When no one came back for the items — and more were donated each day — the collection was born.

The most popular items left at the memorial are notes or letters, many of which are not addressed to a specific veteran. Thousands of metal bracelets commemorating a specific Vietnam prisoner of war or missing in action also have been left behind.

The largest item held in the collection is believed to be a painting on a 9-foot-by-5-foot sliding glass door that shows a scene in Vietnam and displays the names of all those who were POWs or listed as missing in action.

Donated with the door is a full-size reproduction of a tiger cage, like the ones that held POWs during the war. The cage is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History.

Another candidate for largest item is a Harley-Davidson motorcycle bearing a Wisconsin license plate with the word HERO. The group of Wisconsin veterans that donated it has asked that no one be allowed to sit on the motorcycle — hand-painted with scenes of Vietnam — until all those MIA in Vietnam have been accounted for.

According to the Department of Defense, 1,664 veterans are still missing in action in Vietnam.

Those items indicate a great deal of pre-planning, but other donations are spontaneous.

“It’s not unusual to see children go through their backpacks and leave whatever the popular toy of the day is,” Felton said.

“Every item is precious,” he added. “It might be a fourth-place karate medal, but for a person to leave it ennobles this offering.”

Religious items — medals, Bibles, rosaries, crosses and similar articles — make up a significant part of the collection. Among the most popular medals are those dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, patron saint of paratroopers; St. Anthony of Padua and St. Nicholas, both considered the patron saint of sailors; and St. Therese of Lisieux, patron saint of pilots and air crews.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection is one of about 40 historical collections held at the Museum Resource Center. Others include items from the Antietam National Battlefield Park, the Clara Barton National Historic Site and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

But none of the collections has such strong emotions attached to it as the Vietnam collection does.

Felton, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam in 1967, said he tells new interns, “You have my permission to go outdoors and take a deep breath” when they need to. And he admits that he sometimes has to do the same himself.

“In my office I keep a photo of a very good friend who died in battle,” he said. “That keeps my feet on the ground.”

 

— By Nancy Frazier O’Brien Catholic News Service