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Left Behind: The stories behind the items left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall

Left Behind: The stories behind the items left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. (Photo: Kevin Drennen/ABC7)

ABC 7 News has been working on a documentary for most of 2016 about items left behind at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. We felt Veterans Day would be an appropriate time to release this powerful story. These very personal and intimate objects, like a rotor blade from a downed helicopter, speak not only to sacrifice but ultimately to our deepest desire to heal from a complicated and painful past. If you would like to share your story or provide feedback, we welcome it. Please email jkorff@sbgtv.com with your thoughts.

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The Warehouse

When you step inside an unassuming warehouse in Hyattsville, Maryland you’re reminded that extraordinary items are sometimes found in unremarkable places.

“We’re always finding new and interesting things,” says National Park Service museum technician Janet Donlin.

The National Park Service National Capital Region Museum Resource Center houses millions of treasured artifacts from America’s past.

Writings, records and artwork from National Park Service sites in the D.C. region, like Ford’s Theater and the Frederick Douglas estate, are carefully preserved and stored here when not on display.

National Park Service Park Curator Laura Anderson says, “These objects all tell a story and it’s a very powerful experience to work with these objects.”

But the bulk of this cavernous depository of history was actually amassed by you as a thank you.

Donlin says, “So everything in these boxes has been left at The Wall.”

This place is not open to the public.

“We call it the floor. Its artifact storage and the blue boxes that you see in front of you are where we store the Vietnam collection,” says Donlin.

Rows and rows of towering stacks soar nearly to the ceiling here. And for more than 30 years curators and technicians like Janet Donlin have been meticulously cataloging the hundreds of thousands of items left behind by those visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in nearby Washington.

There are tributes, reminders and keepsakes that catapult you back to that tumultuous time. One veteran left his daily countdown calendar.

Another donated the POW flag he received upon returning stateside.

Donlin says, “He made the cross out of his toothpaste tube and he tied it together with his uniform while he was a prisoner of war.”

There are hellos to heroes and unintended goodbyes to sons.

Donlin says “A generic happy birthday card but she received it back in the mail verified deceased return to sender.”

Only a day after Air Force Major Leonard Niski’s mother sent her son this birthday card in 1967 Niski was killed in action. She kept that card for more than 25 years before it was placed at The Wall.

Park Rangers have been picking up and keeping items placed at The Wall since 1984.

Their routine is like clockwork. At nightfall they pick up the pictures and packages left behind. From D.C. these items are taken to the warehouse where they are placed in a box to one day be catalogued.

To give you a sense of the size and scope of this collection curators and technicians have catalogued around 500 boxes. They still have another 1,000 boxes to look through.

Donlin says, “A lot of what’s in the collection is what we call documentary artifacts.”

Like poems, pictures and letters.

Click here to see photos of the dozens of items left behind at The Wall.

This massive stockpile of offerings varies from the routine to the remarkable.

"It’s one of a kind,” says Donlin as she lifts a white covering off of an old motorcycle with a timeless story.

Donlin says, “We call it the hero bike. It’s the largest, the heaviest and most significant piece that we have in our collection.”

The hero bike honors the 37 men from Wisconsin listed as either prisoners of war or missing in action.

“This motorcycle was left at The Wall in 1995 by this group of veterans. They were part of Rolling Thunder,” says Donlin.

That year those veterans rolled 900 miles from Wisconsin to The Wall pulling a trailer loaded with that handcrafted chopper. They left that bike at The Wall to be consumed by history as a symbol of devotion to men left behind.

A cluster of dog tags are attached to the front of the hog. Each man is represented by one of those dog tags.

And inscription of the seat reads ‘Bring ‘em home or send us back.’ This motorcycle has never been ridden. It can’t until all 37 men come home.

The Wall

There are few places on the American landscape as revered as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The Wall, simple in its power, is not political. It doesn’t need to be.

“It symbolizes sacrifice,” says Janet Sileo. Her uncle Jerry Elliott was killed during the Vietnam War.

Hiding behind a sloping hillside this black granite monument, gleaming like a mirror, pays tribute to the more than 58,000 lives lost in a conflict that still haunts a nation.

Every year millions gaze upon the cherished, chiseled names of the fallen.

The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Fund (VVMF) is the nonprofit organization that built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“It brings you closer to your lost loved ones,” says Rick Prine. His brother Rob Prine perished during the war.

Here we reflect on a sorrowful past and for some, what is a still painful present.

It’s become a tradition for Ed Holterman to return to a certain spot at The Wall every Memorial Day Weekend. But for nearly 50 years Holterman could not bear to be here, to walk the cobblestone path, to face an old friend he believes he disappointed so long ago.

Holterman says, “I knew these guys. The one guy saved my life and he’s here.”

Holterman says during the war he had too much to drink one night and couldn’t work the next morning. The man who replaced him on that mission was killed.

“I wanted to say I was sorry. For all these years I’ve had a lot of guilt, a lot of anger and general disgust with myself and everything that happened,” says Holterman.

Holterman recently left his original Vietnam Veterans ball cap at The Wall for that comrade to dull a pain that will never fully recede.

Other more unique items find their way here and then to The Warehouse so parents can share with the world a part of their soldier’s story far removed from the blood soaked battlefields of Vietnam.

As technician Janet Donlin walks over a heavy carrying case to a display table she tells us, “So I cataloged this recently after discovering it in a box. I thought it was odd because of how heavy the box was so of course I had to look into it and see what was inside of it.”

Roller skates. And not just any pair from anybody.

Donlin reveals, “Terry Lee Moore Vietnam Veteran killed in action May 6, 1968.”

Moore won nearly 100 trophies and metals in competitive skating before leaving the carefree world of the rink for the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Donlin says, “You can look on The Wall and see a name but you don’t really know about the person until you see his story. It’s kind of like piecing together a puzzle.”

This wondrous gathering of memory also sits beside profound sadness. These shelves hold so many reminders of soldiers who can no longer speak for themselves.

But we found one small item, hidden from the public for a generation, which tells a young pilot’s story in his own words.

Donlin says, “So this is a ¼ inch magnetic reel. It actually contains vocal recordings from a person who served in Vietnam. This was made by Robert Prine.”

“Well hello. How is every little thing on the home front. I am in Bravo troop 1st of the 9th cavalry,” says Prine in the recording.

The Tapes

“Well hello. How is every little thing on the home front? And I’m presently An Khe, Vietnam,” says Prine in the recording.

Rob Prine grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida.

His younger brother Rick says life with Rob, the oldest brother, was never dull.

“It was a crazy household. There were six siblings. My mother was on her own as she had been divorced,” says Rick Prine.

Rick says Rob willingly took on the role of surrogate father and when war called, Rob volunteered. Before shipping off to Southeast Asia Rick Prine made a promise to his sweetheart Sandy Yager. They decided to get married when Rob returned home.

Rick says, “Well I heard from my brother Rob that ‘hey, when I get back Sandy and I are going to get married and we’re going to have kids, lots of kids’.”

Rob Prine’s connection to family ran deep. He corresponded with loved ones every chance he could while heading into harm’s way. In fact Rick showed us a number of original post cards that Rob had sent him from abroad while heading to Vietnam.

But what Rob shipped stateside next is now a part of our nation’s history.

National Park Service museum technician Janet Donlin holds up a small, flat, square container and says, “And he sent it to a Ms. Sandra Yager in Atlanta, Georgia. We actually had this recently digitized so I was probably the first person to listen to this recording since it was left at The Wall in 1989.”

Prine made reel-to-reel tape recordings.

“Well hello you all. I figured I would send you some words here,” says Rob Prine on the recording.

It’s late January 1968. Prine is based out of Ah Khe, the largest helicopter base in the world at the time. Ah Khe also served as a critical transportation and tactical hub for U.S. military operations.

Rob says in a recording, “I’ll go forward Monday I believe. Either Monday or Tuesday and that’s to our area of operation and that’s where I guess we start the war.” In the background of this particular recording you can clearly hearing helicopters landing or taking off.

But this recording would be the last time his family and his fiancé would hear Rob’s voice. On only his 20th day in Vietnam, this 21-year-old crashed the helicopter he was piloting in foul weather.

Rob’s brother Rick says, “In the process of trying to turn around he hit the mountain and that was it. I went ballistic. I could not control myself because he meant so much to me and the rest of the family and he was gone.”

For years, Rick dreamed of a scenario never to be: that his resourceful brother had somehow survived. Rick says, “Of course that didn’t happen but you always want to hope to see your brother again because he was special.”

The tapes arrived stateside soon after Rob’s death.

Rick, while fighting back tears, says, “It was devastating to have to listen to him alive when we knew he was dead.”

He adds that Rob’s loss was especially difficult on the woman he wanted to marry.

“They loved each other tremendously. I was devastated but Sandy was doubly devastated by his loss because they loved each other so much,” says Rick.

In one of Rob Prine’s final recordings he says to Sandy, “Take care of yourself. And I really can’t think of all that much to tell you except I’m doing fine. Pretty good life here I guess. Pretty good start anyway.”

The Prine family made sure Rob would live on in others. Rick named his son after his brother. His sister Mary did the same. When Sandy Yager married she also had a son. That young man, during an 8th grade field trip to Washington, D.C. in 1989, placed those recordings at The Wall so Rob Prine’s story of devotion to family and to county could live on forever.

“Be good Sandy. I miss you. Bye-bye,” says Rob.

The Rotor Blade

Three days before Rob Prine arrived in Vietnam, the infamous Battle of Khe Sanh erupted to the north. This engagement would prove to be among the longest and bloodiest of the war.

In the first hours of this ferocious siege, 19-year-old Private Jerry Elliott with the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company volunteered for a dangerous rescue mission.

According to first-hand accounts, helicopters headed to a barren mountaintop in search of wounded. Upon arrival enemy fire hit the lead chopper which erupted in flames and crashed. Survivors say Elliott hit the ground to aid crash survivors but was soon surrounded. That’s the last time Jerry Elliott of Greenville, Mississippi was seen alive.

“The helicopters who had landed to help with the rescue mission pulled away and left men on the ground, one being my uncle,” says Janet Sileo, Elliott’s niece.

Sileo says when helicopters circled back several minutes later her uncle had vanished.

“And everyone was gone. There was no one. The casualties were on the ground. Everyone disappeared. No one knew where they were. Where did they go?" says Sileo.

Sileo, who lives in nearby Reston, comes to The Wall often to pay homage to a man who meant so much to her family.

Sileo says, “This is an uncle I have never met but I absolutely love and adore. His sacrifice for me, the freedoms I’m able to experience because his name is on The Wall. It’s not just a name. It’s a person. Someone who people love and the fact that this is all we have of him. This is it.”

Jerry Elliott’s remains were never found. But something else, something remarkable, did eventually come home thanks to a sister who refuses give up on her brother.

If there’s an item at the warehouse that symbolizes the unfailing commitment to MIAs it may be this one.

Technician Janet Donlin carefully opens up an old, small pine box and