Items Left at The Wall Tell Stories of Healing, Loss

Visitors to The Wall look at a basket left for PFC Dan Bullock, the youngest  U.S. servicemember KIA in the Vietnam War.

Visitors to The Wall look at a basket left for PFC Dan Bullock, the youngest U.S. servicemember KIA in the Vietnam War.

The Wall has become a sacred place where millions have come to reflect, remember, and heal from a war that is still affecting a nation today. Many are moved to leave items for the fallen and pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. More than 400, 000 items have been left at The Wall to date.

Each item left at The Wall is unique. They each symbolize messages to the fallen, some with meaning only known to the sender. Since its dedication in 1982, visitors to The Wall are compelled to resolve something, face loss, and begin the healing process. The act of leaving an offering is a familiar occurrence with people leaving everything from letters and teddy bears, to worn out combat boots.

“Sorry about leaving you on the chopper pad…I didn’t know you wouldn’t make it. Guess my old knife didn’t help either of us this time…I have tried to go to the wall many

A knife accompanies a letter left at The Wall,  speaking of guilt about a fallen comrade.

A knife accompanies a letter left at The Wall, speaking of guilt about a fallen comrade, decades after the war ended.

times…but didn’t have the guts…but tomorrow I’m going to be there and give you this knife for the second time… God, I hope I can make myself go to that wall…”

It is with each remembrance that Americans from all walks of life see the true cost of war, and come to understand that a nation is still grieving.

All of these items, some unmarked, are collected at the end of each day by The National Park Service. These items are safely stored in the National Park Service’s Museum Resource Center (MCRE) in Landover, Maryland. There, they are handled carefully by curators who organize and store every individual item, minus perishable items such as wreaths and flowers.

Jason Bain, Senior Collections Curator at MCRE works tirelessly to to carefully preserve each item collected before a selection of items will be ready for view at the future Education Center. The future Center will display these selection of items  in an exhibit called, “The Collection.” It will show the offerings left at The Wall, categorizing them into groups such as: ‘Close to the Loss,’ ‘Bonds Between Veterans,’  and ‘Shared Experience of the War.’

Rendering of The Collection, an exhibit that will display a collection of items left at The Wall for the future Education Center. Rendering by Raph Applebaum Associates

Rendering of The Collection, an exhibit that will display a selection of items left at The Wall for the future Education Center. Rendering by Raph Applebaum Associates

“These categories attempt to encapsulate the…scale of human sacrifice…the enduring bonds formed between comrades as a consequence of military service,” says Bain.

From confronting the harsh realities of war to “the ongoing toll of the Vietnam war, such as drug use and health issues resultant of Agent Orange, exposure,” these offering search for reconciliation and add to the evolving nature of The Wall. For example, alcoholic anonymous medallions, tokens of Vietnam service for many veterans, were left at The Wall at different times.

As time passes, these items offer civic awareness to those born after the Vietnam ended. Bain says that The Wall has become a “site for generations born after Vietnam to reflect upon the meaning of sacrifice and military service.”

A boxing glove is left in remembrance of a man on The Wall. It accompanied a letter of assurance that he will never be forgotten.

A boxing glove is left in remembrance of a man on The Wall. It accompanied a letter of assurance that he will never be forgotten.

Artifacts chosen for the future Education Center may make the connection of relevance to current and future generations. The VVMF Collections team does this by choosing objects which help illustrate and provide a discussion from everything around the social impacts of loss, to politics. To show a more accurate representation of what some offerings convey, artifacts can also be chosen if it shows a direct connection to a name listed on The Wall or if there is reliable information and evidence of who left it.

“I sit here and cry…you know you could never land that left hook…My little baby Sarah is just like me (I know that’s scary)…Boy, this is the 1st time I ever wrote a letter to a dead man. But, Tommy you’ll never be gone as far as I’m concerned.”

Every offering left at The Wall humanizes the effects of war on an individual. It is important to preserve every offering left at The Wall shows a living tribute, a nation’s journey to heal wounds over time. With every letter, war patch, and childhood photo, the more than 58,000 inscribed on The Wall are more personally remembered.

If you have left an object at The Wall and would like to share your story, please email VVMF at comms@vvmf.org. Or if you would like to share it with us on social media, use the hashtag #LeftatTheWall.

You can also read the Washington Post’s article on items left at The Wall.

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