Rachel Manteuffel Speaks at the Vietnam War Memorial
Standing alongside the Vietnam Women's Memorial, Rachel Manteuffel spoke to an audience of veterans, civilians, and scholars. Later at the Veteran's Day Ceremony at The Wall, Manteuffel was introduced by Jan Scruggs, president and founder of the Vietnam War Memorial, to a crowd of over 2,000 Veteran's Day observers. Manteuffel won the national reporting award for her poignant look at the items left at the Vietnam War Memorial Wall.
November 11, 2013, Washington D.C.
I’m here by the grace of the Livingston Foundation and a story I wrote about Duery Felton, the curator of the collection of objects that have been left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
When I started working on the story, I was very removed from the subject. I was born ten years after the war ended. I never served in the military, and even washed out of the Girl Scouts pretty quick. I didn’t know anyone who was physically wounded over there. But I had absorbed the cultural resistance to talking about the war. I knew there was tremendous anger, even still. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to ask people about it. I knew that the stories were painful, and that this war in particular was difficult to talk about and difficult to hear about. I was, without really thinking about it, someone who didn’t want to hear the stories, who was so far removed from them that it seemed better not to pry, not to ask for information. To assume I would never really understand, and to protect myself by not really trying, not finding anything to take personally about the experience other people had had.
The stories we have of war are almost always stories of men. Like the rest of history. It is one level of alienation from the story I had, that, when I watched movies or read books or interviewed veterans, that they were men. That I wouldn’t have been where they were, even if I were alive. That the way history remembers a war, of soldiers advancing, retreating, learning to kill and being killed, of maps turning from one color to another, of brotherhood and manhood, would never have been about me.
But what I discovered about the objects left at the wall is that they created a fully democratic history of the war. A curator doesn’t have to think you are particularly representative for your object to be collected. Any person who can physically get to the wall to leave something behind is automatically a part of history and the way America memorializes the people we lost. Most objects are left with no identifying information or explanation attached, and the few explicitly feminine objects--most famously a pair of lacy underwear--are tantalizing mysteries. They allude to the larger history of war as it ever has been, not just the movement of troops but the people who miss each other, the prized and sparse material comforts, the reminders of home.
And there are objects that tell their own story simply by being left at the wall.
I never saw the Boo Boo Bunnies. They aren’t on display anyplace. I only know about them because the day a man lifted them out of the box of things left at the wall, a reporter happened to be there. They were a pair of carefully, specially folded washcloths. Both folded the same way. The man had no idea what to make of them. There happened to be a woman volunteer on hand who knew them immediately.
Boo Boo Bunnies are for small injuries and wounds. They are washcloths wrapped around a piece of ice, to protect your scrape while Mommy numbs it. They are bunnies, which makes them nonthreatening even if the ice hurts a little. They are one of the powerful ways Mommy makes things okay when you’re hurt.
There’s no way to prove who left the Boo Boo Bunnies, and no way to prove for whom. But I know, deep in my bones, the story they tell. There was a brave Mommy. She had a little boy she loved very much. She made him into a good man. And she gave him up, gave him up to the world. One day, he got hurt very bad, and Mommy wasn’t there. She didn’t even know it was happening. He was hurt, and she wasn’t there to make it okay. She kept the bunnies, though, for ten years or more after she heard he died. And one day she gave them up, too.
Those bunnies tore through every layer of alienation from the war I had. Without any words at all. I knew their story.
There was a very brave Mommy who gave up everything she had. What more is there to know.