Stories in Stone: Duery M. Felton, Jr. & the Origin of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection
Written by Jason Bain, Senior Collections Curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund
“Oh, the stories I could tell you…” quips the distinguished looking gentleman with an irrepressible twinkle in his eye. If the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection (VVMC) could be said to speak with a singular, personified voice, that voice might well sound a lot like former Curator, Duery M. Felton, Jr.
Duery served with honor in the 1st Infantry Division, Company B, 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment (U.S. Army). As an RTO (Radio-Telephone-Operator) with Lima Platoon he humped through rice paddies and rubber plantations, warding off the calculated ambushes of enemy forces and the relentless attacks of mercenary mosquitoes in III Corps, Republic of Vietnam (RVN) from February – December 1967.
Gravely wounded in combat, he was airlifted stateside and arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in Clinton, Maryland where he began the long process of recuperation and later, re-integration into an American society torn asunder by the divisions, conflicts, and counter-currents of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights era. However, much like the many books, press articles, and scholarly dissertations written about the museum collection he would one day champion, Duery’s distinguished military service only paints a scratch-sketch of a more complex subject.
Prior to joining the Army, Duery was a native Washingtonian who spent the early 1960s working as a musical instrument repairman apprentice at Zaverella’s Music Store. A gifted jazz musician, his talents brought him to the attention of soul/R&B legend Otis Redding before his high school graduation left him caught up in the, “Big Military Draft of 1966”. Years after his return from Vietnam, a news article detailing the phenomena of visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial leaving personal items at “The Wall” led to a visit to the NPS Museum Archaeological Storage Facility (MARS) to view these “offerings”.
A board member of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 43 at the time, Duery and other chapter members responded to a request from MARS Site Director David Guynes and MARS Director Pam West to assist in the identification, proper nomenclature, and organization of what would one day evolve into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection. As Duery explains, “[…] out of almost 8 million military personnel, out of almost 3 million actual Vietnam War veterans, I was gifted to be chosen as Curator for the VVMC”. And thus a tireless public advocate for his fellow comrades, a musician of uncommon idiom, and a gifted storyteller became the conduit for the poignant voice of those physical offerings left at The Wall.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection is a singularly unique cultural resource, and is as distinct as the man who helped bring it into being. Artifacts left at The Wall represent tangible evidence of the effects of a particularly divisive historic epoch upon American society and the international community. These items stand as both a testament to the past and as a mirror to current social events. Perhaps most importantly, the VVMC is a community – sourced collection created by individual members of the general public in response to the emotional impact of a visit to The Wall. Visitors themselves, rather than museum professionals, determine the content of the collection and have left an indelible record of their experience in the form of an array of artifacts ranging from the tragic and heart-rending to the humorous; from the mundane to the cathartic. Teddy bears, helmets, handwritten letters, photographs, and a sonogram are but a few of these moving tributes. At present, more than 400,000 objects have been left since the dedication of the memorial and the collection continues to grow. Standing sentinel over this collection for more than 30 years, Duery Felton and others like him understand that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection preserves the context of the socio-cultural history of the Vietnam era, safeguards the spiritual connection of those communing with the loved and lost whose names are listed on The Wall, and fosters an appreciation of the sacrifices of our veterans amongst generations yet unborn.
As a museum curator, I first became acquainted with Duery Felton and the VVMC when
my organization, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF, Founders of The Wall), partnered with NPS in a multi-year project to prepare a representative sample of offerings at The Wall for eventual long-term public exhibition in the future Education Center at The Wall (ECW). When my curatorial team has completed its work, more than 6,000 artifacts from the collection will be displayed in an innovative 35,000ft2 facility that will faithfully preserve the physical record of those inspired by the more than 58,000 names engraved upon the memorial. Reflecting upon the responsibility of interpreting this collection and sharing the stories of those who have sacrificed so much, I’m reminded of something that Duery once told me:
I am the distillation of a multitude of individuals, that is, I am the visible, but I gladly acknowledge those who have unflaggingly believed in me, of those who have shared their input, of those who have shared their special knowledge concerning the interpretation of vast and varying subject matters, and of the National Park Service who realized the importance of this collection. I am now retired as Curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection and the collection is tended to by a new group of care takers. I have faith that the stream of consciousness will not be broken.
In a sense, as a curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection I am the distillation of all the Duerys that have come before me; those who have served, those who have lost, those who have been moved by The Wall to communicate their experiences, and those who have committed their professional lives to preserving the offerings at The Wall while sharing these remarkable stories with the world. It is part of an ongoing, iterative process that brings together visitors to The Wall, donors to the collection, museum professionals, and our honored veterans in the collective practice of memory making. Oh, the stories that we can tell future generations together.
A selection of items from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection can be seen here.