There is one memorial in Washington, D.C., that stands out more starkly than perhaps any other: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also known as “The Wall.”
It’s one of the most visited memorials in a town full of memorials. The gleaming black granite reflects observers like a piercing, soul-searching light. Parents, sons and daughters, relatives and friends alike are blessed with the cleansing sense of dedication reflected by the chiseled names of the fallen, each one an adherent to the West Point motto: “Duty, Honor, Country.”
Everyone knows the story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. When the war ended, veteran Jan Scruggs felt deep down that some acknowledgement of the sacrifices made during this conflict was in order. So he scrapped together the support and financing to construct the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, our Wall.
Early in this century, Scruggs saw that something was missing, that The Wall eventually would go the way of all history-specific edifices. He saw that the Vietnam War itself was slipping into a hazy past. Today, the average middle school and high school students don’t have a clue about Vietnam; even the first Gulf War is “history” to them.
Scruggs was keenly aware, too, that there is a connection between the Vietnam veterans and the ones coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, he saw the link between those who served 200 years ago and the private he was in Vietnam. He made a leap over the years of battlefield courage and commitment and saw a need to represent what it is about American service members that connects them with their forebears: that a cold Special Forces soldier on a perch in the Afghan mountains might have some of the same emotions as the kid at Valley Forge; that a dark beach in the Pacific Theater was as inhospitable to a frogman then as a Vietnam river was to a Navy SEAL commando; that “Duty, Honor, Country” was a common concept in every age. But there was nothing in the Washington landscape that explained this.
The Education Center at The Wall was approved by Congress and the Bush Administration. It will be an underground facility close to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, to tell the story of the more than 58,000 service members named on The Wall and honor the legacy of all those who have served the nation, from the Revolutionary War through the Global War on Terrorism. It will show the pictures of those whose names are inscribed on the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, as well as showcase some of the more than 100,000 items left there in tribute by family and friends. It will celebrate the values of loyalty, duty, respect, service, honor, integrity and courage that were exhibited in Vietnam and in all of America’s wars.
Getting the Education Center started has not been an easy task. Today, with the financial turmoil we are experiencing, it’s tougher than ever to locate donations. None of the supporting funds will come from taxes. It will all come from private donations, the same way The Wall was funded. As we move forward on this important project, dedicated private donors and commercial supporters are being sought.
Some famous Americans have stepped up to support the Center, most notably retired Army Generals Colin Powell and Barry McCaffrey. Recently, actor Tom Selleck volunteered to be a national spokesman for the Center. Several former presidents have endorsed the project, and former President George H.W. Bush has joined the leadership team for the Center. The governors of Texas, Virginia and Florida are also on the leadership team, and several past and serving legislators have also lent their names to the effort.
The National Park Service is on board and will assist the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in assuring the project preserves the historic vistas of the Mall. The Center will be underground — an added architectural challenge, but one that is well within the capability of the selected architects, Polshek Partnership Architects of New York, which designed the Clinton Presidential Library and the Newseum. Ralph Appelbaum Associates, exhibit designer for the Holocaust Museum, the Newseum and the Clinton Library, will design the Center’s exhibits.
The Education Center will not recast the Vietnam War in any political or biased fashion. The timeline display will be accurate and non-polemic. Faces of the fallen will be displayed on a prominent wall in the Center and change with the individuals’ birthdays.
It is for the purpose of keeping alive the thread that The Education Center at The Wall will educate our youth to the realities of service: that commitment continues in every age; that uniform service to one’s country is ennobling; that courage and sacrifice is not age-specific; that America is worth standing up for; and that too often her defense calls for the ultimate sacrifice. The Vietnam Wall is painful evidence of this fact, and the Education Center will elegantly illustrate these facts to the American people. It is a Center whose time has come — a Center we can all be proud of!