- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

The campaign to build a visitors center to complement the Vietnam Veterans Memorial will be getting a big boost from the NBA San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt, who has agreed to be fundraising chairman for the effort.

The announcement was made Wednesday morning by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

“I’m very excited to join the effort to build the education center at the wall,” Mr. Holt said. “The Vietnam era was a key time in our nation’s history that should never be forgotten.”

Plans to build the $100 million education center near the memorial wall on the Mall have been in the works for more than 10 years, but getting the proper approvals and private funding have been difficult. Several groups have opposed construction over concerns about preserving space on the Mall.

Jan C. Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, told The Washington Times in an interview with reporters and editors that it has been a “very long, very rough struggle” to get the project green-lighted “but we are now on the precipice of success.”

To appease opposition to the center, planners have agreed to build it underground on a plot of land on Henry Bacon Drive Northwest across from the Einstein Memorial in a way that will not be visible from Constitution Drive, except for an above-ground kiosk for ticketing purposes. It will, however, be sufficiently close to the memorial wall, which draws about 4 million people annually, to be part of the same experience, Mr. Scruggs said.

He said the visitors center is designed to handle about 2 million people per year.

Mr. Holt, a Vietnam veteran, is the CEO of Holt Companies, whose holdings also include the largest Caterpiller dealership in the nation. For his service, he was awarded the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and the Purple Heart. FedEx founder Fred Smith, also a Vietnam veteran, is a major supporter.

Retired Gen. Colin Powell, a Vietnam veteran and the honorary chairman of the fund, said the Holt appointment will “help enormously.”

“I look forward to working with a fellow veteran to enlarge our circle of support” and build the visitors center, he said.

To date, $18 million has been raised from major donors including Time Warner Corp., which donated $10 million to the cause. Mr. Holt will lead grass-roots and other efforts to raise the rest of the money. All the money for construction will come from private sources, although the property will be staffed and maintained by the National Park Service.

The underground learning center will offer 20,000 square feet in exhibition space and accommodate 350 people at a time. Visitors will be able to attend for free, but the center will use a timed ticketing system to ensure maximum flow. Tours are expected to take roughly 35 to 40 minutes.

The center’s focal point will be a Wall of Faces that will feature photos of service members whose names are inscribed on the memorial wall. The Wall of Faces will show pictures of fallen military members on their birthdays, and enable family members to schedule a visit to the center to honor their relatives by viewing the photos and touring the facility on that day. The photos will be rotated several times throughout the day, slowly fading away to black and highlighting words such as “loyalty,” “duty,” “respect” and “honor” in intervals between photos.

Other displays will showcase the more than 100,000 items left at the wall by those who have visited it over the years, such as wedding rings and graduation tassels left by loved ones to mark significant occasions missed by Vietnam casualties.

The center will focus mainly from the American perspective of the war, but Mr. Scruggs said it also plans to highlight contributions, struggles and sacrifices made by the forces of such American allies as South Korea and Australia, plus the indigenous South Vietnamese forces who fought alongside American troops. Those Vietnamese who fled the advancing communists at the end of the war or who escaped in a boat exodus several years later will be honored as well.

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