By J.D. LeipoldNovember 13, 2007
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 13, 2007) - When the sleek, black granite "healing wall" bearing the names of 58,256 Americans who died during the Vietnam War were dedicated on this day 25 years ago, no one thought the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would become the backdrop to more than 100,000 remembrances of those who fell.
Today, some of those healing mementos are on display at "The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: America Responds" exhibit at the Department of Interior Museum, which opened its doors here to the public Friday.
"The first offering was made when a Purple Heart medal was thrown into the foundation of the memorial as the concrete was being poured, and everyday since then the public has continued to leave personal offerings," said Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne. "Every item has a poignant story to be told."
At the end of every day, items left at the wall are collected by National Park Service rangers, then categorized and stored at the National Resource Center in Maryland.
Teddy bears, belt buckles, photographs and letters, cowboy and jungle boots, flip-flops, silk roses, a Menorah and artificial Christmas tree, rag dolls made from socks, dog tags by the hundreds, service ribbons, captured North Vietnamese flags, inscribed baseballs, a tree made from lollipops and a customized Harley-Davidson chopper with the etched names of 37 Wisconsin servicemembers who never returned from the war are all on display, symbols of pain and healing to those left behind to mourn.
"This is just a small number of the articles left behind and they somehow allow those comrades and family members who survive a greater sense of connection," the secretary said. "Many are items representative of the hopes and dreams that were interrupted by the tragedy of war."
There are no guidelines on how items were chosen for the collection, according to exhibit curator and former Soldier and Vietnam veteran Duery Felton Jr. He said whether the mementos are on display or stored at the resource, each is equally important and serves as a living memorial that is handled with the dignity, honor and sacred fashion it deserves. They all tell stories, he added, and in some instances there are letters to accompany the items, which gives an idea as to what the connection was, be it from a comrade or family member.
"In some cases, it was a letter that may have taken 20 years or more to finally write, to finally come and visit the wall and to bring about some healing," he said, pointing out a rag doll, nicknamed "Worry," which was made from a sock.
"When you read the letter that came with 'Worry,' you realize it was a mascot and written to one of the person's comrades who was killed," he said. "The letter goes on to say how after he was killed that the little doll was then baptized with 1,000 tears by all those who were left behind.
"We have a pair of cowboy boots that are very similar to the type worn by many of the pilots during the war," he said. "We have a pair of black pantyhose - something many veteran nurses told me was not unusual for them to wear under their jungle fatigues so they could remind themselves they were still women in the midst of all the madness," he said.
While the exhibition is a consequence of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial collection and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a consequence of the Vietnam War, another consequence that was not foreseen was the impact of the memorial on the American public today.
"I think one of the greatest legacies left by the Vietnam veterans is that they've taught this nation how to properly welcome home our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who are answering the call of duty, today," said Secretary Kempthorne. "That didn't happen for the Vietnam veterans who didn't come home to a hero's welcome, but they have taught us as part of their legacy that America responds to our men and women veterans today."