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The Things They Carried

05-24-2019
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WASHINGTON, DC – On Memorial Day, thousands of visitors will come to honor and remember the veterans who fought and died in the Vietnam War. Many of them will leave things at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial from personal letters to a motorcycle. 

Close to 60,000 US service members were killed in the nearly two-decade-long Vietnam War. In the nearly four decades since this memorial was built, some 230,000 items have been left here in their memory.

Before he was killed in a helicopter crash, First Lieutenant Robert Prine was in Vietnam for 20 days.

"We are here in An Khe, South Vietnam… I am in Bravo Troop, first of the 9th Cavalry," said Prine, in audio recordings courtesy of the National Mall and Memorial Parks. 

"I really can't think of all that much to tell you," said Prine, with the sound of helicopters whirring in the background, "except I'm doing fine."

Prine carried these audio tapes with him before sending them home. 

"I would appreciate a letter," he said in one. "Keep care of yourself." 

For years, visitors have carried things like Prine's recordings and left them at the Vietnam wall.

"They say as much about us as it says about the wall," said Kawther Elmi. 

The mementos are picked up every night by National Park rangers like Elmi.

"It runs the gamut from culturally significant items and specific to the war, to things coming from children like, 'Dear soldier,' and it's just a piece of paper with their name saying, thank you for your service," said Elmi. 

From prosthetic legs to personal letters, from the Purple Heart to religious medals and a family Bible, the things they leave are kept in a government warehouse under the care of Janet Folkerts, the museum curator for the National Mall and Memorial Parks. 

Some of the things they let go of are heavy, like the Harley Davidson motorcycle. The "Hero bike" was left at the wall by a group of veterans from Wisconsin. 

"They say it's not to be ridden on until all 37 men are brought home," said Folkerts.

Other things carry memories like the kimono one soldier sent home two days before his death.

A note attached to the kimono reads: "Sent to Liz," saying it will "match her aqua eyes."

The kimono was kept for 40 years before she let it go. 

Not everything makes the cut. "We get a lot of really random unknown items," said Folkerts. 

But Ranger Elmi says the things they leave behind provide a connection to this hallowed ground. 

"There's this umbilical cord between our response to these people's sacrifice," said Elmi. 

The names of every American service member killed or missing in the Vietnam War are etched into the memorial wall. The objects left behind by visitors tell their stories.
 

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