Watcher At The Wall: One Veteran Finds A Lifeline In All That's Left Behind

Nov 12, 2016

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.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This Veterans Day weekend, we'll check in with StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative. They record the stories of military service members and their families. Everyday, visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., leave medals, dog tags and other objects at the wall. And Duery Felton has spent decades helping to identify and care for each one. Duery served in Vietnam himself, and he came to StoryCorps with his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Rick Weidman to talk about the war and what led him to the wall.

DUERY FELTON: Going to the wall, I had mixed feelings. But as we were walking about, people will leave things all over the wall, and no one could recognize certain objects there, so I pointed them out. One of the things I immediately recognized was the military hospital pajamas because I wore them a long time. So we decided we were going to make this a collection, and I was asked to come in and assist setting all this up.

RICK WEIDMAN: They created the job around you. So it's not that you chose to work at that memorial, but it chose you?

FELTON: It chose me. I really do think that it chose me. There were 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.

WEIDMAN: What was it that kept you coming back?

FELTON: During Vietnam - and I very seldom speak of this - we had walked into an ambush, and one of my friends had been killed. And I stopped to look at his body, and my sergeant came up to me and said, we have to keep moving forward. And that's why we have medics. The medic will get him. I had to go against everything I've learned growing up, as regards to having feelings for people. In order to survive, I had to learn to detach, and unfortunately not everyone has to learn to reconnect.

WEIDMAN: There's nothing you can do to help any one of those guys. The only thing you can do is help to understand them better and leave that as a legacy so they're not forgotten, but I don't understand how you do it, Duery. Your strength is what it always has knocked me over. You're the man.

FELTON: No, Rick, you are. Thank you. Thank you for being my friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: That's two Vietnam veterans, Duery Felton and Rick Weidman, in Washington, D.C. Duery was the first curator for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection. He retired in 2014. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.