- Associated Press - Friday, October 3, 2014

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) - A Florida heiress’ decades-long push for a tribute to disabled veterans is finally coming to fruition with the opening of a memorial near the National Mall.

The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial will be dedicated in Washington on Sunday. Beside President Barack Obama and other dignitaries will be Lois Pope, an 81-year-old Palm Beach socialite and heir to a tabloid fortune, whose visit with injured veterans in the 1960s triggered her compassion for their struggle.

Pope was a Broadway singer and actress when she was asked to perform at a charity program at Rusk Rehabilitation Hospital in New York, where Vietnam War veterans were recovering. Singing “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” she reached out as she got to the line “Hold my hand and we’re halfway there, hold my hand and I’ll take you there,” but realized the man who lay on a gurney before her had no hand to hold.

“I was naive and pretty clueless about the devastation,” she said, “clueless about the horrors.”

That day, she said she vowed to herself and to God to someday do something on behalf of these veterans. Years later, visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to place her hand on the name of a cousin who died, she found herself beside a multiple amputee who struggled to place flowers near a friend’s name. As she left, she asked a ranger where she could find a memorial to disabled veterans.

“He said there wasn’t one,” she said, “and that did it.”

Pope managed to get the attention of Jesse Brown, the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary in the Clinton administration, who joined her cause and put her in touch with Art Wilson of the Disabled American Veterans organization. Together, they began the long process of getting the memorial approved and raising more than $80 million to get it built.

She gave $10 million of her own fortune - from her marriage to the late Generoso Pope Jr., who founded the National Enquirer - and raised millions more from others.

The result is a monument of glass walls and bronze sculptures, with a star-shaped fountain and ceremonial flame, all surrounded by a grove of trees and near the Capitol. Pope says the project is all about “thinking and thanking” - ensuring others aren’t like she once was, clueless to the sacrifice veterans have made. She hopes the memorial’s proximity to the Capitol will also inspire reflection among lawmakers.

“I want them to know the human cost of war,” she said. “I want them to think twice.”

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Follow Matt Sedensky on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sedensky .

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