WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It was only a groundbreaking ceremony, replete with all the necessary shovels and dignitaries. But this one was special. It involved about 200 people, a sizeable press corps, invited guests, "Gold Star" families who have recently lost loved ones to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the man who raised the money to build and dedicate the Vietnam War Memorial that opened in 1982 on The Mall in the nation's capitol.
The ceremony was organized to begin the new endeavor of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) -- The Education Center at the Wall. It, like the Vietnam Memorial, just yards away, is the brainchild of Vietnam War veteran Jan Scruggs. On this day, in this place, the assembled gathered to recognize his efforts to raise the $8.4 million to build the war memorial and the VVMF's attempt to raise $82 million to build a lasting education center that will transform the effort from a memorial that heals to an education center that will educate for generations and generate income to support both itself and the war memorial.
Scruggs' and the VVMF's determined work is designed to raise $38 million between now and the intended completion date for the center to open to coincide with the end of the U. S. involvement in Afghanistan in 2014.
Among the assembled was Brigadier General George Price, USA (Ret), a recipient of the Purple Heart in the Korean War who described Scruggs as "one of the most unsung heroes in the history of our country." He continued that the Vietnam War era "was one of the most tumultuous" times in U.S. history "and our nation was nearly torn apart by differences of opinion and methods of expressing those opinions. One man had a dream that we needed a place where we could reconcile ourselves and our decisions in our own minds and let our country heal and move on." He continued, "Jan Scruggs is truly a national treasure."
Congressman Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., lauded what "Jan Scruggs has done for this city." He spoke of the Mall as "the most honorable place in the country being about America's veterans" and that "it is about the people who served so that we can be in this city to do the peoples' business."
Former Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division, Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.) entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1967 and thanked the veterans who served, saying "because of the political turmoil that surrounded that conflict, recognition and appreciation came late for the generations of Americans that served in Vietnam."
Scruggs recognized Colorado Attorney General and current Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar as a "strong supporter of the Education Center." Salazar spoke of the lessons of history, explaining that 25 million people visit Washington, D.C., each year to learn the lessons of history and that "when this Visitors Center opens in 2014, which it will, people will come here ... to learn a great civic lesson."
The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullin USN (RET) was on hand to connect the Vietnam Era veterans to those of Iraq and Afghanistan. Mullin had been in Belgium for the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and spoke with a woman who was making her third trip to the site. Mullin said that she explained, "This had been the first trip that she was able to walk the last mile of her father's life and to find out where he was buried." Her message was one of remembrance. Said Mullin, "That's why we're here today." He continued, directing his remarks to Scruggs, "Your leadership has been extraordinary in a time and for a war that was incredibly unpopular." The Education Center for generations to come "memorializes those who fought and sacrificed and died and it's a great tribute to them particularly in a war where the politics and the uniform could not be separated."
Mullin described a trip to Vietnam that included a tour of Hanoi and the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison where he received "a completely inaccurate description of what happened. I speak to that because in a generation that will be how it was in their perspective and that's also the value of having an education center here."
The daughter of Dr. Michael McClung, Vietnam veteran and Gold Star father, was killed by an IED in 2006. McClung spoke emotionally of six veterans, including his daughter, who spanned the eras from WWII to Afghanistan. McClung's daughter, Megan, wanted to be in the infantry, was in her second tour in Iraq, began a marathon there. She was escorting a journalist when her Humvee was destroyed. She died on 6 December 2006. Megan had written that if she had to die, she wished "it would be in a spectacular manner while on a magnificent adventure. She was living that adventure in the Marine Corps." Megan is buried in Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60.
Dr. McClung lost his composure as he requested of all Americans that they remember those who gave service. "We only ask that you remember us."
Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden spoke as a teacher and a "military mom." Her son did a tour in Iraq. The education center "will ensure that our veterans will always be remembered." Biden noted the change in American's attitudes toward veterans returning from service saying, "Thirty years ago when so many of our veterans came home there was no one there to welcome them home or say ‘thank you'. Today you often see Americans reaching out, shaking a hand, offering thanks."
She continued, "The education center connects veterans from all eras. Despite the decades between them the Vietnam veteran and the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran share an inexplicable bond."
The final speaker, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, spoke passionately of the sacrifice of families; the effort to recover remains in Vietnam. "It is our sacred duty to leave no one behind. We will not rest until every MIA is brought home. Every one of them is entitled to the honor due to those who have fought and died for us here at home. I assure you, I assure every American that your government is committed to the fullest possible accounting of our missing service members from the Vietnam War."
"Regrettably, for many Vietnam veterans Americans' recognition of the bravery and courage involved in that war came too late. Preserving our stories requires more than a place of remembrance, it requires a place of education and understanding. The lessons of war that we have learned must never be forgotten."
Panetta drew the heaviest ovation of the ceremony when he said, "We have the most advanced weapons, the greatest ships, we have great fighter planes, we have the greatest technology of any country in the world, but none of that would be worth a damn without the men and women in uniform that serve this country."
Jimmy Buffett led the assembled in a standing rendition of God Bless America to conclude the ceremony.