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For Vietnam's fallen, a trove of mementoes

A widow named Margaret left a photo addressed to Pete when she visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was of a smiling young man in a tuxedo - their son.

"Here's Guy's graduation picture," she wrote in an accompanying note. "You would be so proud of him, he's such a fine young man. ... I think I have done a pretty good job of raising him."

Someone else left behind a baby's sandal; someone else, a watch for a friend who always asked the time. Every day since the memorial opened in 1982, National Park Service rangers have gathered up the poems and Purple Hearts, the battle ribbons and dog tags and combat boots that visitors bring to the monument.

Secured in the agency's museum resource center in Landover, Md., some of the items were on display there Friday as officials marked the 100,000th offering at the wall.

Mostly anonymous, the items underscored the power of the memorial as a way for people to commemorate, communicate with and even apologize to friends and relatives who died in the Vietnam conflict. "I could've done more for you guys, I'm sorry," wrote someone in a note that accompanied a wreath made of barbed wire.

When the memorial was planned, no one foresaw this ritual developing, said Jan Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. But fate was cast during the monument's construction, when a Purple Heart was placed in concrete that had just been poured. "That is not an urban legend," Scruggs said Friday.

The memorial quickly became something of a shrine, he said, and introduced a new chapter in public grieving.

"The items left at the Oklahoma City tragedy, the World Trade Center, the AIDS quilt, even the small memorials we see each day on highways are traced to how America changed the way it mourns," Scruggs said. "This is healthy, and it is a debt we owe to the wall and those engraved thereon."

From the beginning, the wall, which receives about 4-million visitors a year, has served a different purpose than other monuments on the Mall.

"The wall was a memorial constructed for healing," said Bill Line, a spokesman for the Park Service. "The World War II Memorial, in contrast, is a memorial to triumph."

People who brought their treasures to the wall left them behind to the mercy of the elements. But the items are receiving museum-quality treatment from the Park Service, which also takes care of 43 other collections, from battlefields and other historic sites, at its warehouse.

Scruggs said many will wind up in a rotating exhibit at the planned Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center, an underground educational facility he hopes to construct near the monument in a few years. The project awaits final approval.