Left behind: Vietnam Wall collects almost 250,000 mementos to fallen

Photos left by New Hampshire resident Howie Howe during his visit to the wall to honor one of the fallen soldiers memorialized there. (Photo by Bailey Vogt/Cronkite News)

Janet Folkerts of the National Park Service curates items from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which range from stuffed animals to military gear. (Photo by Bailey Vogt/Cronkite News)

A warehouse with some of the rows of boxes that hold the hundreds of thousands of items left by visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. (Photo by Bailey Vogt/Cronkite News)

National Park Service curator Janet Folkerts displays a Vietnam-era pilot’s helmet, just one memento left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. (Photo by Bailey Vogt/Cronkite News)

Visitors at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where volunteers this week were reading the names of all the fallen on the wall for Veterans Day. (Photo by Bailey Vogt/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – On a cool November morning, New Hampshire resident Howie Howe came to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and stopped to see the names of two foster brothers that are etched on the wall.

As volunteers under a nearby awning continued to read the more than 58,000 names on the black stone wall, an annual event during the week of Veterans Day, Howe bent to leave photos at the base of the wall, underneath the name of one of the foster brothers.

“One of him and one of us at the last reunion, when there were four of us still above the ground,” Howe said of the photos he left Wednesday. “Now we’re down to three.”

Visitors like Howe leave items at the wall every day to honor a loved one whose name is etched here among the fallen from that war. And every day, the National Park Service picks up those mementos and ships them to a nondescript warehouse in suburban Landover, Maryland, where they will be cataloged and stored for historical purposes.

That collection of items from the 35-year-old wall is now estimated to number somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 pieces. It’s curator Janet Folkerts job to catalog and preserve it all for the National Park Service.

“Everything we keep for the collection is personal in some way” Folkerts said this week. “They each tell a story.”

Those items come from all over the country and range from personal notes to left-over military gear. On a recent visit to Landover, Folkerts showed items from Arizona alone that included an APH-5 flight helmet to Grand Canyon postcards, from hats to stuffed animals.

Folkerts picks up one of the items left at the wall, as a postcard from the Grand Canyon addressed to a man named “Huey,” otherwise known as Hugh Shevlin, a Tucson native who died in the Guang Ngai province in 1970.

Folkerts read the postcard aloud saying, “I remember you playing basketball at Grand Canyon High School. Parents Kay and Charlie were good friends. How I wish you had been able to fulfill your bright future. – Jeff and Diane.” Folkerts said, “They left a note for their long-lost friend, years and years after his death and they’re still remembering him.”

The National Park Service began the collection almost by accident. Park Service officials did not expect people to leave mementos the wall first opened in 1982, but visitors did so almost from day one.

Folkerts said rangers did not have the heart to throw them out, so they started collecting them unofficially. Several years later, the collecting was made official, keeping any items left at the wall that have a direct connection to one of the soldiers memorialized.

-Cronkite News video by Bailey Vogt

But Vietnam is the only memorial that keeps left items: After learning its lesson with the Vietnam memorial, the Park Service made it a policy to warn visitors at the later Korean War and World War II memorials that anything left behind would be tossed. The agency simply does not have the manpower to keep up.

It can barely keep up with the Wall mementoes. Folkerts estimates that only about 150,000 of the roughly quarter-million items have been cataloged so far.

Folkerts does all of the cataloging at the Landover warehouse, where the bins filled with items stretched for rows in the secured and environmentally controlled space. She receives new items every day, but says the number of items always spikes around this time of year.

“Our two busiest days are Memorial Day and Veterans Day,” Folkerts said, “A lot of people will leave things.”

Folkerts said that the main focus of the collection is to keep a record of the stories that the Vietnam war created, no matter how incomplete they are.

“We get what we get, but what we get is so many different stories and things that it really tells so much of what happened in Vietnam and what’s happened since and why the memorial is important to different people,” she said.

Howe understands that the personal messages embodied in the trinkets may not always be readily apparent to someone else.

“People leave things that they don’t they don’t necessarily be understood by others, but they’re significant to them … for whatever reason,” he said.

But he appreciates what leaving an item at the wall means for those who lost loved ones during the war – and he appreciates the fact that those items are still being kept.

“I think people really leave what’s heartfelt and I think that would be a comfort to know it wasn’t just dumped in a dumpster someplace,” Howe said.