There are federal employees who achieve varying degrees of fame for their service. There are those who toil behind the scenes while making stunning achievements. And then there are those like Duery Felton, curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, which consists of all of the items left by visitors to the memorial on the National Mall in Washington.
Felton is one of the central figures in a piece by Rachel Manteuffel in the November issue of Washingtonian, and his story is both very specific to his own experiences in the war and its aftermath and typical of the unsung dedication of so many people who work in government. That story starts with a description of what happens after National Park Service rangers gather up the mementos and random objects left at the wall and place them into boxes:
The boxes are hand-trucked and golf-carted to a temporary storage room near the Washington Monument, where they await transport to the Museum Resource Center, or MRCE, pronounced “mercy,” a gleaming modern facility in Maryland that houses 40 historic collections from National Park Service sites around the region. The candles get 30 days or more of isolation and are checked for organic matter—flowers, potpourri, marijuana, unsealed food, tobacco, anything that might carry mold. That stuff is “deaccessioned”—thrown out to protect the rest of the collection.
Then the artifacts go into the cotton-gloved hands of Duery Felton Jr., curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, a decorated Vietnam veteran who has devoted himself to this work for 25 years.
Felton is a young-looking 65. He’s compact, with a shaved head and a cane he sometimes carries but rarely uses. He works in blue cotton garments that resemble scrubs, and he moves with grace. Give him a mask and he might be a surgeon.
Duery Felton doesn’t want to be written about. Ask him about his thoughts and feelings—how his life would be different if there were no Vietnam Veterans Memorial or what the hardest part of his job is—and he answers the question he wishes you asked instead.
He pauses, touches his fingertips to his closed eyelids, and begins: “I can tell you this one because he has died.” He answers your question about him by talking about others.
Felton and his team embody the quiet, steadfast dedication to achieving an important, if little-noticed, mission that is emblamatic of the best public servants. Do yourself a favor and read the whole article about them and the hidden story behind the wall. It's well worth your time.