- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2000

The U.S. Army is the only military service without a national museum dedicated to telling its story. A group from Fairfax County, Va., says it's about time that changes.

The group is trying to bring a proposed $100 million museum to Fort Belvoir, which straddles U.S. Route 1 in southeastern Fairfax County. But it's up against stiff competition from a site in the District of Columbia and up against time.

The Army will turn 225 years old on June 14, and many backers think this would be the perfect year for Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera to choose a site and make an Army museum a reality.

But backers also fear if this secretary doesn't act, a change in presidential administrations could force the selection process to begin all over again, and that could mean the Fort Belvoir bid would lose all the ground it's gained.

The Navy has a museum at the Navy Yard in Southeast, the Marines recently designated Quantico for their national museum, and the Air Force museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, outside Dayton, Ohio, draws 1 million visitors a year.

But there's no central location for the Army to show off its collection. So helmets, uniforms, jeeps and the other pieces of Army history are strewn about bases across country, in dozens of smaller heritage centers.

The Fort Belvoir site is 48 acres of unused land about three miles from Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate. The building would be on the original grounds of Washington's farms fitting, since he was the first commander in chief of the Continental Army, say backers like retired Col. Sy Berdux, a Mount Vernon resident.

The site is close to Interstate 95, Mount Vernon Parkway and the Fairfax County Parkway and a Metro stop could be in the distant future. Mount Vernon already draws more than 1 million visitors a year, and yet the area is not saturated with other monuments. Still, it does have a few other attractions, including Woodlawn Plantation, Pohick Church and Gunston Hall, which was George Mason's home, Mr. Berdux said.

The D.C. bid would put the museum on a 58-acre spot next to the Navy Yard in Southeast. Plans currently call for an Army museum, a new national Navy museum to replace the current one and some office buildings and retail shops on the site.

So the question for Mr. Caldera, who must make the final decision, is whether a museum would be lost in Southeast Washington or if a museum in southeastern Fairfax can draw enough visitors.

Virginia state Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller, whose Fairfax district includes Fort Belvoir, doesn't think the Navy Yard site will go over well with Army retirees.

"I just can't imagine these people who have spent their lives in the Army will want to go visit their museum in the Navy Yard," she said.

But the District site already has Metro, and the District draws millions of tourists every year something the Army would like to tap into.

The idea for a national Army museum first popped up in 1814, when Congress called for a place to store artifacts from the Revolutionary War, the Indian wars and the War of 1812.

The idea languished until 1983, when the Army proposed 17 criteria the final site must meet. They also created the Army Historical Foundation and charged it with building the museum once the secretary of the Army chose the site.

Now, 17 years and 60 potential sites later, the Army is only slightly closer to a museum than it was in 1983 or, for that matter, 1814.

The historical foundation has seen choice sites come and go, said retired Maj. Gen. Bruce Jacobs.

"We're all feeling frustrated and foolish. It's taking much too long," he said.

The best news for museum supporters is that Mr. Caldera committed in March to building a museum. That had never been done. He also decided it should be built inside the "monumental core" of Washington in other words, within a reasonable traveling distance for tourists in the capital city, said Maj. Bill Bigelow, an Army spokesman.

The bad news is there's no timetable for choosing a site. But Mr. Caldera's decision narrows the process down to the metropolitan area.

Fort Belvoir may be an unlikely finalist for the honor, but it's come a long way.

"I and many others a year ago wondered if they were serious. They sure proved to me they're serious," said Gen. Jacobs at the Army Historical Foundation.

Formed about 18 months ago, the Fort Belvoir bid has in that time gotten the support of the Virginia General Assembly and Gov. James S. Gilmore III, Northern Virginia's congressional delegation and the state's two senators. One of them, Sen. John W. Warner, a Republican, is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee a good person to have on your side in this battle.

Recently both he and Virginia's other senator, Charles S. Robb, a Democrat, wrote letters to Mr. Caldera explaining their support for Fort Belvoir.

The other point man on Capitol Hill is Rep. James P. Moran, a Democrat whose district includes Fort Belvoir.

"In addition to being the right place, the economic development benefits to southeast Fairfax are immeasurable," Mr. Moran said.

Having those big names fighting on the Hill is important, because the competition has big-name backers, too. The D.C. site has the support of a small cadre of retired generals and a former Army secretary. Another site that was ruled out in March in Carlisle, Pa. had its own strong backers, including Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican.

"It's all kinds of internal politics," Mr. Moran said.

Gerry Hyland, the Fairfax County supervisor whose district includes the site, agreed: "The politics of this decision are most intense, not only up on the Hill, not only in the Army itself, but also within circles of retired military itself."

"Here's what I'll tell you each site has its own supporters," Maj. Bigelow, the Army spokesman, said.

Still, Mr. Moran has been putting the pieces in place, and says he's garnered key allies on key committees. He expects language to come out of Congress in September directing the Army to begin preliminary studies of the Fort Belvoir location.

Whether or not Fort Belvoir gets the site, though, Mr. Hyland says he believes its bid for the site has been a major factor in putting the issue back before the secretary. Now he and the rest of his allies just hold their breath until November.

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