It’s nightfall in Washington, D.C., at the end of the evening shift, when the throngs of students on school field trips have slowed to a trickle at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
With a flashlight in one hand and a clear plastic bag in the other, Bob Herendeen walks the length of the austere, black granite wall. The National Park Service ranger surveys the things visitors have left at the memorial: American flags, wreaths, flowers.
On this spring night, there’s something else left behind. To the untrained eye it doesn’t look like much — a few teaspoons of dirt or ash. But after six years working as a park ranger at the memorial, Herendeen immediately recognizes what it is: human remains.
About once a week, Herendeen says, he comes across scattered human ashes at the wall, inscribed with the names of 58,318 U.S. service members believed to be dead or missing after the Vietnam War.
It’s a difficult part of his duties. More personal items, like medals and dog tags, are gathered up and curated; some become part of the memorial’s permanent collection. Unlike those mementos, the cremains can’t be added to the collection.
“You realize on the one hand that this was somebody’s last wish to have their remains placed here on the wall,” he says. “The law does not allow us to do that, so we have to follow a protocol, clean up the ash and remove it. It has to go into a hazardous waste disposal.”
The memorial was dedicated in 1982, and people have left cremains there — either scattered or in containers — since 1990.
But for the last couple of years, it has been happening more frequently. The generation that served in Vietnam is aging — the youngest combat veterans are now in their 60s — and there was a particularly noticeable uptick after the 10-part documentary The Vietnam War began airing on PBS stations in September 2017.
Now, the National Park Service, which is in charge of the memorial and the associated collection, is trying to discourage people from leaving cremains at the wall. Last fall, a new sign went up, warning visitors that the scattering of human remains is prohibited and that the ashes will not become part of the permanent collection. Visitors to the website of the memorial’s permanent collection are given the same warning.
The park service says it isn’t equipped to care for human ashes and it is in discussions with veterans’ organizations to find a permanent home for the cremains in its possession.
While scattered ashes are disposed of, containers of ashes are taken to the vast warehouse at the National Park Service’s Museum Resource Center in Landover, Md., outside Washington.
There, items left behind at the wall are stored on rows upon rows of shelves: carved walking sticks, footballs, sculptures and blue boxes containing photographs, letters and other mementos. The collection holds as many as 300,000 items, collected from the foot of the memorial since its dedication, many of them tied to names on the wall.
But the cremains are not part of that permanent collection.
“The things we have here are objects that tell a story,” says Janet Folkerts, curator for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial museum collection. “But those [remains] are people, and we are not a mausoleum, and we are not a crematorium or a gravesite, so we don’t have the capacity to take care of them in the way they should be taken care of.”
The ashes and their containers are kept separate from the rest of the collection, in a locked cabinet, its glass windows covered with brown paper for privacy. “So we don’t have people just walking by and ogling,” says Folkerts.
Inside the cabinet are all sorts of containers: traditional urns, tins that look like they might have once held chewing tobacco, carved wooden boxes, a bandoleer with little glass vials of ashes in place of ammunition. There are at least partial remains of about 70 people. Some are marked with names, some are anonymous. There are poems and epitaphs — not all of them reverential. One of them reads: “My wife has a drinking problem: me.”
There’s a letter attached to one of the containers, written in cursive on flowered stationery and addressed to James B. Elder, one of the soldiers whose names are on the wall, a casualty of the war. It reads:
To Jimmy: Jim carried the weight of your death every day of his life. He blamed himself for your child never having known you. He blamed himself for being in the hospital with malaria, instead of having your back when the attack came that took all your lives. The belief that he could somehow have saved you never left him. Misguided as it was, Jim never really left Nam. It took him too, in the end. So I’m leaving him with you. It’s what he wanted. I hope you’re both smiling and at peace now.
Barbara Otterson, now 67, left that letter at the memorial in 2014, along with the cremains of her late husband, James Gooderum, who died at age 64.
It was more than a year after his death. She was packing her life into an RV and preparing to leave home in St. Louis and travel the country year-round, and she didn’t know what to do with the ashes. So she took them to the memorial.
“It’s a place he always wanted to visit, but due to the severity of his PTSD he could never bring himself to go there,” Otterson says. “So, I took him later.”
Otterson says her husband had always talked about the friend he’d lost in Vietnam, James “Jimmy” Elder, but could never bring himself to reach out to Elder’s family. “I don’t know, it just seemed appropriate to leave him with his friend,” she says.
She knew that items left at the wall were collected and archived, but she didn’t know what would happen to her husband’s cremains.
“I guess I just assumed that the ashes would probably at some point end up in a military cemetery mausoleum,” Otterson says. “Beyond that I hadn’t really thought about it.”
Laura Anderson, curator for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, understands why loved ones feel compelled to leave remains at the wall. “A lot of people think of the site as sacred,” she says.
But it has put the park service in a difficult position: having to determine the most respectful, honorable way to care for remains that may not even be identifiable.
“It’s not a decision that [curators] Laura or Janet or the rangers on the ground should be the ones making,” says Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the National Park Service. “It’s a decision — the final resting place of a loved one — that should be made by the families.”
The park service has had discussions with the Department of Veterans Affairs and a group called the Missing in America Project, whose mission is to inter the unclaimed remains of U.S. veterans, about finding a home for the cremains at a veterans cemetery.
That option, too, is fraught. To be interred in a national cemetery, the deceased person’s military record needs to be confirmed. And Folkerts points out that can be difficult or impossible “if we only have a first name, we only have a last name, we only have a nickname,” or if they don’t have a name at all.
In the meantime, despite the sign, people continue to scatter ashes at the memorial. To Otterson, the widow of U.S. soldier James Gooderum, it felt like the best, most natural way to honor her husband and connect with a defining time in his life.
“It’s the closest I could get to the place that he felt most at home, with his brothers in arms,” she says. “I don’t know any other place you can take them other than the wall.”
Connor Donevan and Renita Jablonski produced and edited the audio story. Maureen Pao produced and edited the online story.