Items Left at The Wall Tell Stories of Healing, Loss

A pair of combat boots stand alone at The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Items left at the memorial are picked up at the end of every day by The National Park Service.

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, flowers, and teddy bears, to combat boots and hand-made projects from veterans’ groups around the country.

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) facility 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.’

"These categories attempt to encapsulate the...scale of human sacrifice embodied in large assemblages of military memorabilia...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. 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."

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, those inscribed on The Wall are remembered.

Read the Washington Post's article on the stories behind items left at The Wall.