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Venturing into the Memorial's Vault on The Wall's 30th Anniversary

By Don Hirst 
Originally published by Vietnam magazine. Published Online: November 19, 2012 
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A deeply personal story resides in each item left at The Wall. (Credit: Weider History Group Archive)
A deeply personal story resides in each item left at The Wall. (Credit: Weider History Group Archive)

The 30th anniversary of the memorial is likely to bring a deluge of items into the collection

Every day and every night, streams of objects find their way to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They range from the small to the large, from items whose significance is readily apparent to those whose meaning is more personal or obscure. All are deeply felt. All are deeply personal.

But that is fitting. After all, the stark, somber rows of names of those who died in Vietnam inscribed on The Wall invoke deep, personal emotions from the millions who have visited and from those still seeking the inner courage to do so.

For many years I was one of the latter. Too many names of those I knew are on The Wall. Some I grew up with. Others I served with. Still others I wrote about or knew during my post-Army years as a civilian journalist covering the war.

It was just too hard, too personal. And as I sit here at my computer on an overcast day in late July, looking out the window at the calm, sheltered waters of Horn Harbor in Virginia's Northern Neck, something strikes a chord and tears flow. I'm not ashamed to admit it. If you can't cry for your friends, who the hell can you cry for?

So I think I understand—if only a little—why those objects are left.

But what happens to them? Are they all treated like so much debris left at a sporting event or a rock concert, bagged up and then discarded?

Far from it. Each item receives very special treatment in a National Park Service collection stored in the Museum Resource Center in suburban Maryland along with other treasured artifacts from America's past. Dubbed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, its curator and custodian is Duery Felton Jr., a wounded Army veteran who earned his Purple Heart while serving with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam.

For the Vietnam magazine interview with Duery Felton in October 2009, click here.

When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in November 1982, nobody could know about the crowds it would eventually draw—an estimated 25 million and counting, according to Felton. Nor did anyone know about the emotional outpouring it would generate and the ocean of objects that would be left there.

Felton began his association with the collection by volunteering to help catalog the items left at the memorial and picked up by National Park Service employees. Now, as curator, Felton recently gave me a personal tour of the facility. The most obvious question—the size of the collection—doesn't have a simple answer, like much about Vietnam. Felton estimated there are about 300,000 objects, conservatively speaking, "depending on how you count." One good example, he said, is a leather jacket that had a bunch of objects in its pockets. Is it one item or more?

Multiply that scenario many times over and it's evident why precise numbers are tough to pin down.

Regardless of the current total and how you count it, the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is likely to bring many more items into the collection. Will it be merely a deluge? Or a tsunami? Nobody knows, but my gut feeling is like that line in Jaws when they see the size of the shark they're trying to catch: "You're gonna need a bigger boat."

Cataloging the flood of new items will be a challenge. A big part of the process is trying to determine the meaning of items left at The Wall. Felton's goal is accuracy, so the Park Service staff welcomes and encourages a brief explanatory note or other clue to help them determine the story behind the treasures.

Some years ago, an unfounded rumor circulated that the items left at the memorial were being stuffed into a rat-infested warehouse in the middle of nowhere. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I toured the collection facility, it quickly became apparent that much loving care is lavished on them. The climate-controlled facility is clean, well lit and orderly. The part of the immense building that holds the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection also contains many precious objects, some that once belonged to famous Americans including President Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton and Frederick Douglass.

Walking through the collection, past the shelves upon shelves of blue boxes holding the items, the net effect on me was emotional overload. It was tough, but I am glad—very glad—I had the privilege. At the end of my tour we stopped in what Felton called the Press Room. The items kept there represent the variety of the collection through a relatively small sampling.

What are arguably the crown jewels in that room are kept in a locked metal cabinet with pullout drawers. In one of those drawers are four sets of four-star-rank insignia pinned to index cards with a brief handwritten note on each card. Marine Corps General Peter Pace, who served in combat in Vietnam and rose to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left them at The Wall.

As I read the notes, chills ran down my spine. One of them was to a young Marine, the first under his command to die in Vietnam. "These are yours, not mine," Pace's handwritten note says.

"Do you know the story behind this one?" I asked Felton.

"No," he replied.

"This was part of the speech he made at The Citadel when my son's class graduated in May 2006," I said. I told Felton about General Pace's speech at the Military College of South Carolina, in Charleston, and promised to send him a copy of the pertinent part. For many years, I kept a copy of Pace's words by my desk at work and looked at it every day:

Check your moral compass frequently. I have seen it both in combat and in peace. If you do not know who you are walking into a situation, you may not like who you are when you're done. When I was a lieutenant in Vietnam, I lost Lance Corporal Guido Farinaro from Bethpage, New York, a 19-year-old Marine, to a sniper—the first Marine I'd ever lost in combat. I was filled with rage, and I called in an artillery strike on the village from which the sniper fired. Between the time that I called in the strike and the rounds were fired, my platoon sergeant didn't say a word, he just looked at me. And I realized I was doing the wrong thing, and I called off the artillery strike, and we did what we should've done, which was to sweep through the village. And all we found in that village were women and children.

I do not know how I could live with myself today if I had carried that first instinct forward. The time to decide who you are and what you will let yourself do is not when somebody gets shot, it is not when your wingman gets shot down, it is before you get in that situation so you have an anchor to hold on to. This applies elsewhere.

I have had the great privilege of watching and knowing real heroes in combat. I have also had the great privilege of watching and knowing great heroes around conference tables where the discussion amongst many very senior leaders—each very powerful in their own right, each very articulate in their own right—was going in one direction, and somebody in that room says, I see it a little bit differently, and speaks their mind. That takes an enormous amount of courage.

If you're wrong in combat, you may die. If you're wrong in a situation like I just described, where your reputation is on the line, you have to live with it. So when you walk into a room like that, it is well to have thought through who you are and what your fundamental beliefs are. Where is your moral compass? So that when the situation and the discussion starts going one way, you have already decided where you are and the person who walks out of that room is the person you wanted to be walking into that room.

Relating the story behind Pace's note was a fitting end to a memorable, emotional visit. Now, I have just one more thing to do. In the near future, I'm going to leave at The Wall a copy of my February 2012 Vietnam magazine article about the photo I shot at the U.S. Embassy during the Tet Offensive. That, and a short note explaining why, will be placed in front of the section that bears the name of my good friend, Spc. 4 Mark Lofaro, an Army photographer who was killed taking photos in the opening moments of Tet. It's the least I can do.

As an Army enlisted man Don Hirst served in Vietnam in 1964-65, 1967-68. He covered the war for Overseas Weekly from 1968 to 1972 and was an editor at Army Times for 11 years. In 1985 he launched Salute magazine and was its executive editor for 20 years.



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