Offerings At The Wall

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“I NEVER GOT TO SAY GOODBYE. SO I’ COME TO THIS MONUMENT TO HAVE A LITTLE MEMORIAL SERVICE AND TO SAY GOODBYE AND TO LET YOU GO.”

But sometimes meaning remains in the eye of the beholder. In 1991 Felton teamed up with Jennifer Locke of the Smithsonian Institution, a child during the Vietnam War, to select items for a small exhibit at the Museum of American History. Felton, as Locke tells it, wanted to include a parking ticket, speculating that it bespoke the Vietnam veteran’s continuing problems with impersonal authority; Locke saw something that had fallen out of someone’s pocket. In the end the ticket didn’t make the final cut, but a pacifier did. “It could have been dropped by accident,” Locke says, “or it could have belonged to the child of someone who was killed in Vietnam.”

Before about 1985, when word began to spread that the things left at the memorial were being saved, most of what turned up was what Felton calls “pocketables—a beaded necklace or a swizzle stick—or “field expedients”—two cigarettes made into a cross. Subsequently, many of the offerings began to look more elaborate and premeditated. The word processor took over from the scrawled note, the prepared work from the found object. Donors often alerted the National Park Service before relinquishing objects of value at the memorial.

Leaving something behind began to be a standard ritual for a visit to the wall. At the same time, there came to be more participation by visitors who had no close connection to anyone named on the wall. Boy Scout troops left wreaths for hometown heroes; a German sailor penned an antiwar message on his white cap. Offerings unrelated to the war accumulated. A twisted scrap of gray metal appeared one day; the donor explained that it was wreckage from a B-52 that had crashed in Kentucky in 1959, killing his father. Someone else left two large crystals wrapped in blue velvet—a “psychic guide” for the collection’s keepers.

Donors who came neither to mourn nor to commune with their own dead were helping to turn the memorial into a bulletin board, and like all bulletin boards, the memorial began to attract its share of advertising. The director of the radical antiabortion group Operation Rescue has left his business card, and so have politicians, psychotherapists, and business owners.

As a public forum the wall began early on to attract social and political discourse beyond the war’s immediate range. A Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military service award, was returned by a Vietnam veteran with a letter that began:

Dear President Reagan,

The enclosed statement of my renunciation of the Congressional Medal of Honor and its associated benefits represents my strongest public expression of opposition to U.S. military policies in Central America. You have been the champion of these brutal policies. I hold you most responsible for their origin and implementation.

For their part, Ronald and Nancy Reagan weighed in with a handwritten message at the wall:

Our young friends:

Yes young friends, for in our hearts you will always be young, full of the love that is youth, love of life, love of joy, love of country. You fought for your country and for its safety and for the freedom of others with strength and courage. . . .

More recently Operation Desert Storm yielded, among other things, a crop of yellow ribbons, a few signs that said NO BLOOD FOR OIL , and one that read GUYS, THIS TIME WE WON . Since then the tokens of major marches—pro-choice, pro-life, gay rights—have regularly lined the wall.

On Memorial Day 1993 the wreath that President Clinton laid at the wall had to be removed as soon as he finished his speech to escape destruction by hostile spectators. That Clinton’s behavior as a college student could still provoke such animus nearly a quarter-century later underscores the truism that Vietnam endures in extremely powerful ways. A great number of notes and tributes at the wall refer to veterans whose names do not appear there because they died not in action but years later, from the aftereffects of the herbicide Agent Orange or from posttraumatic stress disorder, both the subject of tireless veterans’ rights campaigns.

By far the most potent and enduring issue for some visitors to the wall has been the fate of those servicemen they believe are still held captive in Vietnam. Some thirteen hundred men are designated on the wall as unaccounted for, their names signaled by crosses. An unofficial, round-the-clock vigil for the missing, kept since Christmas Eve 1982, functions like a volunteer priesthood at the memorial. POW/MIA bracelets accumulate by the thousands, the objects most commonly left at the memorial.