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Education Center at Wall Faces Funding Hurdles

Jan Scruggs, the force behind the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, is now leading the charge for construction of a privately funded “Education Center at the Wall” to help Americans better understand what happened in the war and appreciate the sacrifices of troops who lost their lives in Vietnam—and also those who died in other U.S. wars, from the Revolution to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which built and maintains the Wall, was authorized to undertake the education project in legislation signed by President George W. Bush in 2003. Vietnam magazine asked Scruggs for an update on the center.

When do you expect the Education Center to be completed?

After we have all the money in the bank with certified construction costs. Then the secretary of the interior will give us the construction permit. In July 2014 we got official approval of the design, after $4.5 million in architecture fees.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial cost $8.4 million. How much will the education center cost?

We’ve raised $25 million. Now we need about $85 million. It’s basically a $105 million project.

Who are some of your major donors?

We received $10 million from Time Warner. General Colin Powell helped us get that donation. ConocoPhillips came up with over $2 million. Australia gave $3 million. We expect a significant contribution from South Korea as well. It’s been a long, winding road.

Why do you think that is?

There are a number of competing projects on the National Mall. The African-American museum is under construction. The Eisenhower memorial is approved but not under construction yet. These two efforts received over $350 million from Congress.

Congress or the president could help get the Education Center built. However, our talks with the White House and Congress lead us to believe we may not get a penny. Amazing but true.

The more problematic thing is that the big donors we go to, the big corporations, say, “If your purpose here is to tell about the Vietnam War and to honor the Vietnam veterans, you’ve already done that on the Mall. Now we’ve got these guys coming back wounded from Iraq. They need to be honored, so why don’t we just wait for their memorial?”

Often the people making these decisions were not born until after the war ended in 1975; they don’t see the relevance, the need to teach about the Vietnam War or to add anything to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

How are you counteracting that sentiment?

We brought in some very big people to look at the project. Karen Hughes [who advised George W. Bush on communications strategy] and some other public relations pros recommended that we expand the vision of the center, to have Vietnam as the focal point but to show also this legacy of service, of healing, remembrance. Photos of the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan will be central to the exhibits. This is a place that veterans of those wars will be drawn to.

It’ll all work, but it’s probably going to be another three years of fundraising.

Once you get the permit, how long will construction take?

A minimum of 18 months. It depends how many shifts you want to run. The more shifts you run, the more you have to pay people overtime. But it can be done easily in 24 months.

Nixon Library Releases Haldeman Diary Tapes

The Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, has released 193 recently declassified taped diary entries made by Richard Nixon’s White House chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, who reflects on a variety of political, domestic and foreign topics including the Pentagon Papers and Vietnam War. Haldeman had been putting his diary entries on paper since the administration took office in January 1969 but switched to audiocassette recordings in December 1970. He resigned April 30, 1973, after being implicated in the Watergate scandal.

The Vietnam War appears frequently in the tapes. One example was recorded on Thursday, March 30, 1971: “Our position, looked at objectively, would appear to be at an all-time low at the present reading. The polls show us the lowest we’ve been: Gallup at 50, Harris showing a drop just the other day from 43 to 41. The credibility figure is way down; the rating on handling of the Vietnam War is the lowest it’s been. The magazines did one of their periodic ‘this week Nixon’s in deep trouble’ sort of orgies.”

In 1980 Haldeman transferred his diaries to the National Archives and Records Administration, which manages the Nixon library. Segments of the written and audio diaries have been released in batches since May 1994, after going through national security reviews to determine whether they would be fully or partially declassified. Haldeman died in November 1993.

In another announcement, the Nixon library said on Dec. 15, 2014, that Michael E. Ellzey had been named its new director, ending a long selection process dogged by controversy. Former Director Tim Naftali resigned in 2011 in a dispute with Nixon Foundation, the library’s fundraiser, over the Watergate exhibit. The foundation then objected to the National Archives’ recommended successor, historian Mark Lawrence, because of his writings on the war.

Since 2008 Ellzey has been overseeing efforts to redevelop a Marine Corps air station in El Toro, California, and create the Orange County Great Park, a municipal park. Previously, he worked with Silicon Valley companies, the San Jose Arena Authority and an arts and culture district in San Francisco. Ellzey, who has a law degree and an undergraduate degree in political science, was a Vietnam-era member of the Marine Corps.

Remains of Wisconsin Soldier Identified

There mains of a Vietnam War soldier who had been missing in action for 47 years were returned to his family in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in November. James Van Bendegom, who joined the Army at age 18 in 1967, was on patrol with his unit near the Cambodian border on July 12, 1967, when he was wounded in an ambush and captured. Former prisoners of war reported later that Van Bendegom had died in Cambodia, but the location of his remains was unknown—until DNA tests results were announced in October 2014.

Van Bendegom’s previously unidentified bones had been in storage since 1986, when a Vietnamese woman smuggled them into a refugee camp in Thailand and, claiming they were the remains of an American soldier, tried to sell them to U.S. officials, who confiscated them instead, according to the Kenosha News.

Van Bendegom—a member of B Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division—was buried with full military honors in Kenosha on Veterans Day. His remains were interred next to his father’s grave.

Vietnamese Economy Ready to Roar?

U.S. trade with Vietnam is booming. The American Chamber of Commerce expects to see a net export value of about $29.4 billion when the total for 2014 is tallied and predicts Vietnam will account for 22 percent of trade between the United States and Southeast Asia, according to Vietnam has become the third-largest source of shrimp shipped to the United States, after Indonesia and India. Only China exceeds Vietnam in the net amount of Southeast Asian exports to the United States. The chamber also expects bilateral trade with Vietnam to reach $50 billion by 2020.

Restrictions Eased on Foreign Homebuyers

Vietnam has softened restrictions on the purchase of homes by foreigners, according to Reuters. Starting in July 2015, overseas Vietnamese citizens, foreigners with valid visas and international businesses that operate in Vietnam will be allowed to buy homes in the country. Foreign ownership is limited to 30 percent of an apartment building and 250 homes in any single city neighborhood.

Oil Rig Contract a First in International Bidding

 Vietnam has finished construction on $70 million job to build the upper deck of an offshore oil platform for an Indian company that will place it near Mumbai, reported The contract was the first that Vietnam has won in an international bidding competition.

Innovation Sprouting

Dragon fruit production has grown dramatically in recent years, and that has driven down prices. But a farmer in Long An outside of Ho Chi Minh City figured out how to take excess, underpriced dragon fruit and turn it into wine. In another spurt of creativity, farmers in the Mekong Delta have perfected a way to grow pomelos in a mold that creates the impression of Buddha’s hands on the green peel. They plan to market them for Tet, the Vietnamese celebration of the lunar New Year.

FAREWELL Vietnam POW Ernest C. Brace Dies at 82

 The longest-held civilian American prisoner of war in Vietnam, Ernest C. Brace, died Dec. 5, 2014, at age 82. Brace was captured while working as a pilot carrying supplies in Laos. He was held from May 21, 1965, to March 28, 1973—seven years, 10 months and seven days.

Brace became a prisoner after his plane was fired upon while landing at a Laotian airstrip and grounded by the damage. He was held in a small bamboo cage for more than three years. Brace tried to escape three times. As punishment, he was put in stocks and ropes.

In 1968 he was moved to Hanoi and put in solitary confinement in a cell next to Navy pilot and future U.S. senator John McCain, who taught Brace a code the POWs used to communicate with each other. Brace was released in 1973 at the end of America’s involvement in the war.

Before the Vietnam War, Brace had flown more than 100 missions as a Marine Corps pilot in Korea between 1951 and 1961.

In 2013 he was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal and two Purple Hearts.

Pen Pal Program Makes History

A flag that draped the coffin of a Vietnam War casualty and then was displayed in a New Jersey classroom has been donated to the National Museum of American History in commemoration of the war’s 50th anniversary.

The flag had been hanging on the wall of a classroom of Yorkship Family School in Camden, where fourth-graders were pen pals with troops in Vietnam.

It was used in the funeral of Army Lieutenant Eugene Moppert, a strong supporter of the pen pal program. He was killed in combat in 1968, and his widow, Sandra Moppert, gave the coffin flag to the fourth-grade class of 1967-68.

The members of that class made the donation to the history museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution. Those pen pals also have donated letters, photographs and other memorabilia to the museum in conjunction with the war’s 50th anniversary.

Vietnam War Re-enacted in Oregon

 An 8-minute documentary produced by The New York Times looks at an annual Vietnam War re-enactment in central Oregon. Participants in the private summer event include civilians as well as veterans of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam.

One of the veterans interviewed is a South Vietnamese soldier who fled to the United States when the war ended. Another is a young American who served as a medic in more recent wars. You can find the documentary on YouTube by searching for “New York Times” and “Re-enacting the Vietnam War.”


Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.