America’s Legacy of Service by Jan C. Scruggs

  The Things They Carried to The Wall

Author Tim O’Brien did something most of us can only dream of. That something all came from his experience in the rice paddies of Vietnam where he carried a rifle on Army Infantry operations.

Tim wrote a classic.  His book, The Things They Carried, is read in literature classes all over America.  This book is a fictional tale of a sensitive young American at war in Vietnam.  Like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, he is also at war with himself. He is at war with the war.  His tortured character endures and endures his time and pain and tragedy as a combatant. The ending is spellbinding.

The quality of the writing is part of what makes this book a classic.  Below are a few lines.  These words are eloquent.

“…They shared the weight of memory.  They took up what others could no longer bear.  Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak.  They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down.   They carried their reputations.  They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing.  Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to”.

‘The Things They Carried to The Wall’ is my blog topic for today.  This story begins in 1982 during construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or The Wall. A US Navy Pilot came to the site and asked to insert a Purple Heart into the concrete backing behind the Memorial.  This was the beginning. I recall in November 1982 visiting the Memorial before dedication.  I saw something haunting – a pair of cowboy boots were placed next to a panel.  They were old boots that once belonged to a young 19 year old who became forever young during the Tet Offensive in 1968.  They sat alone at the Wall.  The sight of these well worn boots would make anyone tremble.

The “things” grew in number.  How many items have been left at The Wall? You will be surprised to know that the number is two hundred thousand (200,000).  There is an amazing collection- there is nothing quite like it anywhere.   These items will be displayed at the Education Center at The Wall (for more information about the Center go to

Why do you think people leave things at The Wall?  What would you leave and Why?  Think about it.  There is no American tradition of leaving items like this at sacred places.  Yet the 492 foot long black granite panels of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial evoked memories and helped heal wounds.  For many leaving items there was symbolic of being able to say “goodbye” or coming to peace with some war related trauma in the past.  Family members and military veterans left many items.  A woman left the shoes she wore to her high school prom with a young man who died in Vietnam while just 19 years old.  A Sioux Green Beret left a carefully engraved Tomahawk.

Brilliant academicians have studied the items left there.   Much has been written about this unusual and very democratic collection of items left by many people for many reasons.

Now, nearly 30 years later, many items are still left at The Wall.  Many of the new items show, in the words of Medal of Honor recipient Brian Thacker, how “The Wall That Heals has evolved into The Wall That Educates”.

Now much of what is left at The Wall is from kids in Middle School and High School.  They often leave a wreath or a work of art designed as a class project.  They come to do name rubbings of people from their counties or states.  These young people also leave messages thanking these Vietnam War for their service toAmerica and for their bravery.

Today, I saw some moving and profound examples.The photo below is a picture of items that were left by young people who attended a High School where Michael Crescenz once attended. After graduating he ended up inVietnam- it was there that his life ended. He received the Medal of Honor.

The EducationCenterat The Wall will use these items left at The Wall to teach about Values. Values like Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Honor, Integrity and Courage are profoundly important to think about and, indeed, to act upon.

The Education Center at The Wall will teach a profound lesson about Citizenship.  The people teaching this lesson will be people like Larry Lancon.  Larry was a US Army Medic in 1970. When a battle began, he put dressings on wounded soldiers and moved them into safety.  While wounded he continued to save lives.  He did not survive that day, but he made sure that others did.

His actions exemplified the values of Courage and Loyalty.  At the Education Center people will be asked if they doing enough to help their neighborhood, their community or the people in the retirement home down the road.  Each of us can do more.