Mementos on the Wall: Remembering Vietnam veterans

The granite wall, and the names etched in it, elicit a wide range of responses. Some stand in silence; others pray, or offer a final salute. Many visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., feel compelled to leave offerings of love or gratitude or remembrance ... a pair of boots, photographs, letters, even a last cigarette.

Each evening National Park Service rangers collect the items and send them to a massive warehouse in Maryland filled to the rafters with objects left since 1982.

Ranger Janet Folkerts catalogs the items and keeps them in pristine condition. She doesn't know the total number of objects left. 

"We have a guess of 400,000. We never will fully know until we have everything cataloged, which we don't have yet," she told CBS News correspondent Chip Reid. 

They range from works of art, to dog tags to a motorcycle. A Harley was left at the wall by the Wisconsin chapter of Rolling Thunder, a Vietnam veteran advocacy group, to remember the 37 Wisconsin Vietnam veterans missing in action.


A baseball and glove left for U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ronald Matel, who was killed in 1969. His brother said his nieces and nephews have now taken his place playing catch.

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Each item is treated with reverence, but Folkerts says some hit harder than others. One was a letter from a woman who was engaged to someone who went to Vietnam.

Warrant Officer James Bosley didn't come home. His fiancée, Carole, left with a ring and charm bracelet, wrote:

"Dear Jim, you are still the 21-year-old chopper pilot, curly-haired, blue-eyed, and oh so handsome! ... the ring and bracelet symbolize our youth and what might have been."

"I really identify with the lady who wrote it," said Ranger Folkerts, "just imagining my fiancé, or now my husband, going and not being about to fulfill all of our dreams that we had for our future. It does pack a punch, it really does mean a lot."

Jason Bain, a curator with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, is working with the Park Service to select items from the collection for an educational center to be built near the wall.

"We want to have that visceral representation," Bain said.

Soon after the wall was built, a baby sweater was left by the mother of Private First Class Donald Detmer.  A letter accompanying it read: "I wanted to bring your teddy bear but just couldn't part with it. Instead, I brought your first sweater. You are always in my heart, how I love you."

It is typical of the kind of objects found here: early objects, what curators like to refer to as "close to the loss," are packed with raw emotion, said Bain.

Other items, like a care package, are haunting reminders of families suffering unbearable loss.


A care package returned to the family of Specialist 4 (SP4) Charles Leroy Stewart was left for him at the wall. 

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"This care package arrived in country just about the time that Specialist 4 [Charles Leroy] Stewart was killed in action," said Bain. "And unfortunately it was simply stamped with this date, KIA -- Killed In Action -- and was sent home to his family. And that's what his family saw."

Years later, Stewart's family left the package at the wall. The letter reads: "Charles Stewart, Mom and Dad want you to have these cookies and Kool-Aid. It's time they gave these to you. They send all their love, Gary B."

Some items left behind reflect the deep longing for closure felt by many Vietnam veterans. One left a photograph, but didn't know which name on the wall was theirs: "Delta '71, your face haunts me, and the name is gone."

Whoever it was, said Bain, "couldn't place him on the wall, couldn't identify him, couldn't take a name rubbing. In a way, couldn't complete that experience, and I think for us that's really the mission for VVMF -- it's to connect the faces to the names."

Bain hopes putting the objects on display along with photos of the fallen will help veterans, families and the nation to heal.

"It will give visitors to the education center, and I think visitors to the wall, a bit more depth of that experience," Bain said. "To not just read the names, but to see these faces and to understand that these were real people, real human beings who had lives that were cut short."

They're still raising money for the Vietnam War Education Center. The plan is to build it across the road and underground, so it won't interfere with the visual experience of visiting the wall.

In addition to the thousands of objects that will be on display, they also hope to include photographs of every single person whose name is on the wall.

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