Vietnam Memorial to turn 25
Offerings still pile up at foot of wall

WASHINGTON - They are lined up like footnotes to the names etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial's polished black granite, leaning against its base, some a collective tribute to the fallen, others bearing a message for just one of the dead.

An American Legion uniform cap from Kansas, a police patch from a town in Georgia, a note to 'GRAMDADAD' that appears to have been written by the unpracticed hand of a young child. A homemade plaque with plastic red poppies pasted to it, dedicated to a 'Band of Brothers.' Poems from middle school students.

'We met once when you played golf with my dad,' reads one note, written hastily on a piece of yellow notebook paper, addressed to a Major Shaw. 'You served together in Vietnam. He made it back to us. I'm saying goodbye.'

Since the memorial was completed in 1982, it has become a de facto shrine with more than 100,000 offerings for the dead and messages from survivors left by the millions who visit it each year.

That number is likely to grow in the coming days. National Park Service officials said milestones like Veterans Day this Sunday and the memorial's 25th anniversary Tuesday inevitably lead to floods of new items at the wall, as veterans gather at the site on the National Mall and the memories of the war that ended more than 30 years ago are renewed.

The nature of the mementos has changed. In the beginning, it was mostly veterans who dropped off unit patches, Purple Hearts, photos of lost soldiers or old pairs of Army boots. But with many veterans now in their 60s, members of a younger generation - including grandchildren of veterans and the fallen - are making contributions.

On a recent day, a baseball card from a boy named Nicholas was propped against the wall, with a note that read 'For my grandfather.'

The practice wasn't foreseen by the memorial's planners, but the first offering came even before the monument was completed, a Purple Heart laid in the foundation by the brother of a dead soldier.

At the beginning, a memorial staffer collected the items on the belief that people would want them back.

When they continued to pile up, with little sign of abating, the Park Service decided in 1986 to treat the items as museum pieces.

'It was unheard of for people to come to a site over a protracted period of time and leave objects,' said Duery Felton, the collection curator and a Vietnam veteran. 'These objects became a collection. Before that, they were just things left at the memorial.'

Jan Scruggs, a veteran who came up with the idea for the memorial and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, said the wall changed the way people pay respects and grieve at memorials and at the sites of tragic events - such as the World Trade Center in New York and the bombed federal building in Oklahoma City.

'It is a beautiful thing,' Scruggs said. 'It shows that those who we know and who were a part of our lives and who aren't with us anymore still have an impact on us.'