Every day, visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., leave objects in commemoration of the thousands of names inscribed on its wall. Medals, dog tags, even pajamas and countless other items — there have been hundreds of thousands of them left at the memorial since its dedication in 1982, and still today you'll often find them laid out at the base of the memorial's long, reflective surface.
Duery Felton did, too.
A Vietnam veteran himself, Felton visited the wall at first with mixed feelings. But during his visit, he took to pointing out the objects scattered along the ground, which others had some difficulty identifying. Among them, he says, "One of the things I immediately recognized was the military hospital pajamas because I wore them a long time."
The more objects he recognized, the more he felt he ought to get involved. He began volunteering for the National Park Service in the 1980s, helping maintain its collection of those left-behind objects, and eventually the agency hired him full time. He became the curator of the collection — a position created specifically for him.
In a StoryCorps interview with his friend and fellow Vietnam vet Rick Weidman, Felton says he doesn't feel that he even chose to work at the memorial.
"It chose me — I really do think that it chose me," he says. "There about 8 million Vietnam-era veterans, and out of that number I for some reason was the one chosen for this. I don't know why, but I've often thought about that."
What keeps him coming back?
"I very seldom speak of this," he says. "We had walked into an ambush and one of my friends had been killed, and I stopped to look at his body." But his sergeant hurried him away quickly, telling him, "We have to keep moving forward. That's why we have medics — the medic will get him."
For Felton, that moment reflected a terrible lesson he learned in war, one that went against the principles instilled in him in his youth: "In order to survive I had to learn to detach," he says. "Unfortunately, not everyone has learned to reconnect."
And that project of reconnection is partly what drove Felton. He retired finally in 2014, but Rick Weidman, his friend, remains in awe of the work he put in.
"The only thing you can do is to help understand them better and leave that as a legacy so they're not forgotten," Weidman tells him. "I don't understand how you do it, Duery. Your strength is always what has knocked me over. You're the man."
Audio produced for Weekend Edition by John White.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.