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

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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