- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Twenty years ago today, 100 Vietnam veterans, two from each state, stood on the Mall in Washington. In unison, each turned the earth with a shovel, breaking ground for a national memorial dedicated to all who served with the U.S. Armed Forces in the Vietnam War.

Eight short months later, on Nov. 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated, providing long overdue honor to the nearly three million men and women who sacrificed in America's most unpopular war. The polished black granite walls bear the names of the more than 58,000 who were killed in action or remain missing.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, today known simply as The Wall, stands as a symbol of reconciliation, as demonstrated by the range of supporters, from former Sen. George McGovern to Gen. William C. Westmoreland, and truly has helped to heal our nation after a divisive era.

How does one measure the impact of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial? Certainly, the widespread public support is one way. Nearly two decades after its dedication, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial remains the most visited memorial in the nation's capital, with more than four million visitors annually. And thousands more visit traveling replicas of The Wall as they traverse the country each year. A retired traveling replica now stands outside the veterans hospital in Altoona, Pa., and another permanent half-scale replica sits at the Veterans Memorial Park in Pensacola, Fla. The phenomenon is unprecedented.

Another example of The Wall's impact is the number of items left along The Wall's base. A wedding dress. Military medals. Cowboy boots. A sonogram. A Harley Davidson motorcycle. Cans of beer. Packs of cigarettes. Photographs. Poems. More than 64,000 items in all including those that are displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, and the Imperial War Museum in London and other institutions throughout the world.

Kristin Ann Haas, associate director of the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan, theorizes in her book, "Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial" that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has changed America in a profound way.

"The impulse to make personal memories of difficult public grief emerged at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but it has been expressed throughout the culture and has opened up an amazing dialogue about memorial practices for Americans struggling to make sense of other painful aspects of their culture," she writes. "Most dramatically, in Oklahoma City more than a million gifts have been carried to the fences that surround the remains of the bombed-out Federal Building. Such memorial impulses reflect both a need to negotiate the public meanings of these deaths and a determination on the part of ordinary citizens to do this work themselves."

As we know too well, the same practices are found today in the areas surrounding the site of the World Trade Center in New York.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial's impact can be measured in another important way. Shortly after The Wall's dedication, veterans organizations began efforts to build state and local memorials dedicated to their Vietnam veterans. Vietnam memorials even exist in Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

And, in stunning reverse order, America began to honor its war veterans on the Mall. The Korean War Veterans Memorial, dedicated in 1994, is The Wall's newest neighbor. Soon, the National World War II Memorial also will grace the Mall.

As author Herman Wouk once wrote: "The beginning of the end of war is remembrance." It gives no one pleasure that we are again at war. Yet, through these memorials, Americans have proven their respect and gratitude for our service members who have always gallantly stood in harm's way to protect our nation and the principles of liberty for which we stand.

The Wall, however, is now older than many of its visitors. Each spring, youngsters by the busload descend on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Unfortunately, many do not understand the principles of sacrifice and duty to one's country the essence of why young men and women, many just teen-agers, answered the call to service during the Vietnam War.

An underground Education Center has been proposed for the Memorial grounds to help transform The Wall from a place of remembrance to one of learning and understanding. The facility will feature exhibits to help visitors better understand the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and those who served and sacrificed in the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund the nonprofit organization that built The Wall is working with members of Congress to make the Education Center a reality.

Legislation continues to wind its way through Congress behind the leadership of Sens. Chuck Hagel, Max Cleland, John Kerry, John McCain and Rep. John Murtha all Vietnam combat veterans as well as Rep. J.C. Watts and others. In February, the Bush administration signed on as an Education Center supporter, too.

The Memorial Fund looks forward to the day when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Education Center opens its door. When those 100 Vietnam veterans turned the earth 20 years ago to break ground on the memorial, no one understood the magnitude of their actions. Like The Wall, the Education Center will serve as means to heal, honor and educate about the heroes of the Vietnam War and the ways in which they and our nation are forever changed by that era.

William Gladstone, the 19th-century British prime minister, once wrote: "Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people their loyalty to high ideals and their regard for the laws of the land."

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a testament to those words.

Jan C. Scruggs is the founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

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