Separating the War from the Warriors

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Ralph Applebaum Associates

The Vietnam Wall’s new Education Center will display some of the nearly half-million items left at the Wall over the past 30 years.

The past decade has not been a pleasant time for many who serve in our armed forces.

Many recall holidays deployed  in danger zones  far from home.  Places like Fallujah, Kandahar and Bagdad brought our troops many challenges. America has had over 50,000 wounded,  nearly 7,000 dead. Others have injuries like PTSD, tinnitus and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Wars have costs — often profound — for the warriors.

Many Americans actually do not know anyone who has been deployed in the military. It used to be very different. During the Vietnam War it sure was.    I volunteered at age 18 for a two-year stint in 1968.

Most of those I served with were drafted. I liked the idea of getting it over with right out of high school. The Army made me  an infantryman. They were losing hundreds on a weekly basis. I ended up in Vietnam, seeing combat here and there.  Thanks to the skill of a North Vietnamese RPG team, I got shot up badly enough to get a free education. I ended up with a master’s degree in counseling psychology from American University in Washington D.C.. And later a law degree. So it was a fair trade.

Flowing from all of this education, I became an authority on PTSD, writing articles and testifying to the U.S. Congress. Then came the idea of a national memorial honoring Vietnam veterans. A lot people helped considerably, especially some dedicated and skilled graduates of West Point. One was Robert Kimmitt, who went on to become the U.S. ambassador to Germany. There were a lot of them, several with MBAs from Harvard. I was just a former E-4 with an idea, energy and audacity.

The effort to create the Wall was action packed with thrills and spills and controversy, but the entire effort — legislative, funding, design competition and construction — was completed in three years. As decades moved on, “the Wall that heals evolved into the Wall that educates.” These are actually the words of Brian Thacker, a Medal of Honor recipient. In 2000, with help from a lot of VIPs like Senators Chuck Hagel, John McCain and John Kerry — we started work on the Education Center at the Wall. The Memorial gave the veterans of the Vietnam War society’s recognition. The Center would teach that society about what the veterans did.

You are invited to a ceremonial groundbreaking for the center on Wednesday, November 28.

We are breaking ground for some real VIPs who are pretty busy right now — fighting in Afghanistan or getting ready to deploy. They and many other Americans have been fighting for a long time.  The recent veterans of these wars will one day get a memorial, but that’s at least a decade off. Until then, the center can serve as a place where they will be honored, and where their fallen friends will be remembered.

The Education Center will be a place to celebrate values like Honor, Courage, Integrity, Duty and Service. The exhibits will  consist of some of the 400,000 items left at the Wall arranged to highlight these values.  Visitors will be greeted in a corridor introducing them to a Legacy of Service — acknowledging all those who have served since 1775. At the end of the tour, photos of those Americans who fell in Vietnam will be displayed, driven by software…and visitors. We now have more than 32,000 photos of the 58,000 who never came home.

Ralph Applebaum Associates

This rendering shows how those killed in the nation’s post-9/11 wars will be honored at the new Education Center.

How will our more recent veterans be honored? We are planning to display their photographs as well. We have assured Congress, the White House and the families that this will be done. We now have the  team in place, including former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, congressional leaders, and celebrities like Jimmy Buffett. We make no judgment on the wisdom of fighting in places like Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.  That debate is for others — for historians and policy-makers — elsewhere. The Wall’s mantra has always been to separate the war from the warriors.

Come help us do that at 10 a.m. this Wednesday at the Wall. Bring your photographs.