A Token Left, A Life Remembered

May 25, 1992|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- They still come every day in a curious pilgrimage. They've come for 10 years now. Night and day, rain or shine, you can hear the murmurs of those who must make their peace at the black granite wall bearing the 58,183 names of the country's sons and daughters lost in the Vietnam War.

Since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982, more than 20 million people have visited this solemn ground.

In a capital city brimming with monuments and historical import, the once-controversial memorial remains the most popular attraction.

And when visitors come, they bring offerings. Some, like elaborate wreaths or similar displays, are prepared elsewhere and placed at the base of the monument as if it were a shrine.

Other items, like a Popsicle stick inscribed with a love note or a woman's high-heel shoe, are more spontaneous.

After the memorial was dedicated, B. A. McDermott, a retired Army colonel from Nashville, Tenn., decided to visit the wall with his wife, Miriam, and come to grips with their private loss amid the vastness of the directory of the dead.

"In 1983, my wife and I went to the memorial to see our son Ben's name," he says.

Their son, a Marine captain, was killed in 1969 after earning a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts in a reconnaissance unit.

When they went to the memorial, they took a letter written by Mrs. McDermott, a picture of their son's Corvette sports car and his teddy bear.

"Ben had the teddy bear as a boy, and we thought it appropriate to leave it at the memorial," Mr. McDermott says. "When we arrived there, it was pretty incredible. That wall ties people into it, gave us a special feeling.

"I think the feeling is you have to bring something representative of the past to link with the present," says the father, now 82.

"There's this feeling the wall is asking for something," he says. "The teddy bear was something our son liked, and we put it close to where he was. Doing that brings it down to the individual.

"I felt like all those names were asking us to come," Mr. McDermott says. "The feeling I got was very strong, as soon as I got near it. I still feel like part of me clings to it."

Despite a decade's passage, Vietnam veterans, their families and friends still struggle with society's labeling those who fought as a generation of losers.

But veterans of that war -- despite the ugly treatment many received when they returned home -- have run for president, captured a Pulitzer Prize for literature, guided legislatures across the nation, directed the American Stock Exchange and healed the sick.

Many others have had to overcome enormous physical and emotional trauma to simply lead normal lives.

Others still grapple with their past in private nightmares.

All of them make up the crowds that continue to visit the memorial and leave their messages at the wall.

"I don't understand the passion, this outpouring of emotion and objects," says Jan Scruggs, the son of a Bowie, Md., milkman and waitress, decorated for Vietnam service and one of the founders of the memorial. "Most people figured it would pass. But people and the things they bring just keep on coming."

To date, the federal government has collected more than 25,000 items left at the wall.

The more common offerings laid at the base of the memorial are worn jungle boots, Purple Heart medals, letters, flowers and teddy bears.

But there have been other, more mystifying things, like a bicycle fender, a television set, a storm door, a weathered Rawlings baseball glove, a kite.

Several soldiers who served in Afghanistan for the former Soviet Union visited the wall and left a shot glass.

A visitor from West Germany left a note that read, "That never people must die for a stupid war!"

"All of these artifacts have a very personal story behind them, and most remain an enigma," says Duery Felton, curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection in Lanham, Md.

"There's still a lot of unfinished business connected with the war and its aftermath," he says. "To many, the wall allows these people to lift the lid on the coffin of their minds. The artifacts people leave behind have made the memorial America's bulletin board."

The National Park Service has been collecting and storing these offerings for eight years. From Oct. 27 to June 7, 1993, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History will have an exhibit of the artifacts gathered from the memorial.

Diane Carlson Evans, a combat nurse in Vietnam and driving force behind the women's statues to be dedicated near the memorial next year, says the magnetism of the memorial "is really no surprise.

"There's such a reverence to begin with, and when people leave things, they are completing the circle," Ms. Evans says. "It's a coming to terms, and everybody hasn't done that yet. I've been there a lot, but I most remember the baby shoes and a teddy bear. . . . They just blew me away."

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