Some come because it is a stop on the bus tour. Others come to mark one milestone or another. A birthday. A wedding. Anniversaries. Others make the pilgrimage for catharsis. The black-granite arms of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington welcome them all. The Wall gathers them in to learn, to celebrate and to grieve. The energy of those represented by the sheltered alcove on the National Mall gives so much that many of its visitors are compelled to give something in return.
When the monument first opened to the public in 1982, the offerings began appearing. They were typically small items: a note hastily scrawled on the back of a bag from a museum gift shop, a photo, a dogtag, a lighter, a Purple Heart, or a single, unsmoked cigarette. Some things came with explanations, but most did not.
At the time, maintenence workers were not surprised by the items, and thought the owners would eventually come to reclaim them. For two years, they simply rounded them up and held them in an ever-growing lost-and-found temporary storage area.
By 1984, as controversy over the Wall's design slowly gave way to floods of visitors, the offerings became more deliberate and more common. Cards for birthdays that would have been. Photos of children never known. Boots that would be worn no more. Within these items were unspoken conversations that speak volumes.
That year, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund handed over control of the memorial to the National Park Service, whose officials realized that the offerings were not going to slow down or stop. In fact, they soon understood that the offerings were an integral part of the Vietnam War story. Curatorial staff began to save and catalog each item left behind, with the exceptions of perishable plants and unaltered U.S. flags. By 1986, the items were officially designated as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection. Duery Felton Jr., a Vietnam War veteran, is the curator.
Felton served with the Army's 1st Infantry Division as a radio operator and was wounded near Cambodia. He brought to the Memorial Collection project not only a practical knowledge of many items left by visitors, but also a keen understanding of their meaning to Vietnam veterans, living or dead.
Nearly three decades later, Felton and his staff of four employees, along with a handful of interns and a network of volunteers, oversee the collection. They are charged with accurately identifying each item, cataloging where it was left, and then carefully preserving it for future generations.
What the staff does not do is put forth any theory or interpretation of the items they find. Felton says that to assume things is to miss the point of the offering.
"If someone writes a note to ‘Sarge,' only the writer and Sarge knows what it's about. It's the nature of this collection. It's a catharsis of sorts."
The collection now has more than 125,000 items, and it's only getting bigger.
Children and grandchildren leave items for parents and grandparents they never met. Offerings are also left on behalf of those Vietnam War veterans who died after U.S. military operations ended there, and homage is paid to those making the ultimate sacrifice today.
Every new item is dutifully added, without discrimination. Felton says that the power to pick and choose is simply out of his hands.
"It is a social history," he says. "This is not a National Park Service collection. It is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection. The public decides what is worthy to be in this collection."
And as the public continues to leave offerings at the Wall, the monument has evolved into what designer Maya Ying Lin envisioned at the beginning – not a static memorial, but a living interaction between those who left and those who were left behind.
Holly K. Soria is art director of The American Legion Magazine.