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Education Center to usher in new era of understanding.

The names. The roll of names, each etched a half-inch tall into polished black Bangalore granite, stretches 493 feet, 6 inches. The names begin with Dale R. Buis and end with Richard Vandegeer. Between the two are 58,259 others who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Army Major Dale Richard Buis was an adviser at Bien Hoa when he was killed during a Viet Cong commando raid on July 8, 1959. Air Force 2nd Lt. Richard Vandegeer died on May 17, 1975, when his helicopter crashed at sea in Cambodian waters.

Since 1982, this open-air monolith known best as The Wall has stirred the emotions of millions who have trod the cobblestone path along its base. From solace seekers to the merely curious, few emerge from the mesmerizing embrace of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial untouched. Only 75 words are inscribed on The Wall along with its thousands of names, yet it conveys the essence of war and humanity unattainable in volumes of texts.

While simply viewing the names of the thousands of dead is a moving experience, few beyond their families, loved ones and comrades had the honor and privilege of knowing them in life—their loves, their accomplishments, their faces.

The faces. Behind each of the neatly etched names there are faces. Forever young, carefree, mischievous faces. War-hardened, grizzled, fretful faces.

Dale R. Buis was born August 29, 1921, in Pender, Neb. He was married and had three young sons when he was killed at 37. He’d only been at Bien Hoa two days as part of a small U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group team. With a few of his comrades in their mess hall, he was watching a movie, The Tattered Dress, when a team of Communist commandos struck. Killed alongside Major Buis was Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand. For readers of the news reports that day in 1959, it could not be conceivable that these two would only be the first of 58,259 to follow.

Richard Vandegeer was born in Columbus, Ohio, on January 11, 1948. The Air Force Reserve officer was 27 when he was killed. Just 17 days before his death, he’d been flying a helicopter in and out of Saigon from a ship off the coast, making five desperate sorties to evacuate Americans and South Vietnamese as the city fell to North Vietnam. Only days before that, Vandegeer had been flying rescue missions out of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. In a tape recorded message he made for a friend in early May, Vandegeer recalled his harrowing Saigon mission:

“The VC had commandeered Air America Hueys and were flying around. It made a very interesting chess game. We pulled out close to 2,000 people. We couldn’t pull out any more because it was beyond human endurance….I have no word on when I will be withdrawn….I’ll just have to wait and see. I apologize for the poor way I explained what has been happening….I don’t think it will be too terribly long before we are together again….I wish you peace and I have a great deal of faith that the future has to be ours.”

Shortly, Vandegeer was again called into action during the Mayaguez incident. While rescuing Marines from Koh Tang Island, Vandegeer’s chopper was shot down, killing all aboard. Those hearing the news on May 17, 1975, prayed these would be the last to die in the brutal 16-year conflict.

Between the faces of Dale Buis and Richard Vandegeer are those many thousands of other Americans who perished. They served and they paid the ultimate price in a conflict that often appeared to defy logic, a war that tried the endurance, tested the will, spirit and unity of the nation. A war whose legacy and lessons are still subject to seemingly endless and emotional debate and are evoked in today’s policymaking and tested on today’s fields of battle.

Among the lessons most Americans agree was taken to heart is that support and respect for those among us who are tasked to fight and die trumps even the bitterest divergence over policy. The American peoples’ poignant and emotional embrace of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has dramatically borne out that lesson.

Soon The Wall, and the healing touch of the names etched upon it, will be joined by a powerful component destined to transform those names into faces—faces that will inform generations to come that the cost of war is so much more than a list of names from long ago now carved in stone: it is the flesh and blood of those who gave themselves in a cause greater than themselves.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s vision for The Education Center at The Wall came to life in 2003 when Congress passed legislation authorizing creation of a center to honor the memory of Vietnam veterans and educate visitors about the sacrifices that veterans have made in the name of freedom. In the intervening seven years, the careful and laborious process required of any organization attempting to build a new memorial on the National Mall has moved forward from a national competition to select a design team to securing approval of a site, creating a fund-raising operation and unveiling of the design concepts for the center last fall.

While The Education Center at The Wall is destined to be thought-provoking and informative, what it won’t be is intrusive or distracting. The subterranean facility will be situated a stone’s throw from The Wall, but the vista of the surrounding area will be largely unaltered.

“We are acutely aware of our responsibility to the veterans, to their families, to the site, the Lincoln Memorial and Memorial Circle,” said James Polshek, lead designer with Thomas Wong on the project. “We will be careful to preserve the trees and the overall greenness of the site. The emphasis is on modesty and generosity to the array of interests, and to the city of Washington. I’m happy it’s being built underground, even though that presents a variety of technological challenges.”

At the forefront of the effort to create and now build the Education Center are a number of Vietnam veterans who see the center as not only another way to honor their lost comrades, but also to ensure that the values that motivated them and all veterans in American history are remembered.

Among the Education Center Campaign leadership are Honorary Chairman General Colin Powell, Advisory Board Chairman General Barry A. McCaffrey and National Spokesman Tom Selleck. Others on the leadership team include former President George H.W. Bush, NYSE Group Chairman Marshall N. Carter, FedEx Chairman and CEO Frederick W. Smith and a growing number of governors from across the nation.

Jan Scruggs, the driving force for building The Wall itself, and the founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund said, “If you look at the Vietnam veterans involved in this project, you’ll see prominent and distinguished people who want to help give a gift to the nation and give something back to our comrades who didn’t return with us. It is vital that we remember the individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam, and the Education Center will allow us to put faces with the names on The Wall. It will help the Vietnam Veterans Memorial virtually come alive.”

Scruggs believes the Education Center will actively extend The Wall’s remarkable ability to heal a nation that was once so divided over the conflict. “That’s why we wanted The Wall and the Education Center so near the Lincoln Memorial, the ultimate symbol of healing a divided nation.”

Among the heavy hitters Scruggs has recruited to promote and raise funds for the project is Texas businessman and owner of the National Basketball Association San Antonio Spurs, Peter Holt, who is the chairman of the Education Center Campaign. “We have a very dynamic, skilled chairman who has the ‘can-do’ spirit,” Scruggs said. “As an owner of a sports team, he loves to win.”

“There are 54 names on that wall of men I served with, some of them saved my ass more than once,” said Holt. “I lived and they didn’t come back, so this is one small way I can give back to them. It’s personal for me.”

Holt was awarded a Silver Star, multiple Bronze Star Medals and a Purple Heart during his one-year stint in Vietnam. While long active in San Antonio with the Wounded Warriors program that supports wounded veterans, Holt said he had not been very active with Vietnam veteran organizations until Scruggs paid him a visit in early 2009 and asked him to lead the formidable fund-raising effort.

“I had been keenly aware of The Wall from the beginning and admired Jan for his great accomplishments,” Holt said. “Over the years I’d made four or five visits there, but otherwise had not been involved. But I always wanted to give back somehow. They have raised a lot of money already, but really needed somebody to help in the day-to-day fund-raising. It will take a lot of money, probably a couple of years.”

According to Holt, about $25 million of the $85 million needed has been raised. He stressed that the project receives no federal support, aside from the land. While the economic downturn has impacted fund-raising efforts, Holt and Scruggs remain optimistic that a 2012 groundbreaking is possible. And, while Holt is attempting to bring in more major corporate donors, along the lines of Time Warner, which has given $10 million, and foundations such the Heisley Family Foundation that has pledged $2.5 million, he said he is hoping 10 to 15 percent of the total funds will be raised through individuals and small grassroots efforts.

Holt and Scruggs emphasized that one critical way individuals can contribute is through the organization’s National Call for Photos. “Our goal is to have pictures of each person who died in Vietnam, each name on The Wall,” said Holt. “And, not just their standard service picture, but pictures of them as just normal people, playing ball, whatever. We want to personalize them, so we want letters they may have written home and things like that, all to show this and future generations that we have been protected in our history by regular people, just doing their part.”

In addition to the pictures of all the fallen, The Education Center at The Wall will also have a timeline exhibit that traces the events of the war and the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Legacy of Service exhibit will reflect on the values embodied by those who serve and protect the nation, and offer portrayals of service members from the Revolutionary War to the 21st century.

In what will be one of the most unique exhibits to be found in any museum in the world, the center’s Collections Wall will herald the unusual interactive quality of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial itself. Here, for the first time, the public will have the opportunity to view a permanent exhibit of some of the most moving, poignant and sometimes amusing items that have been left by visitors at The Wall since 1982.

According to Duery Felton, curator of the National Park Service’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, “There have been twice as many items left at The Wall as there are names on The Wall.” Felton is excited about the center’s mission to educate. “This collection is tangible evidence of the far-reaching impact of the war on our society, and how there is no monolithic perspective on the war. I hope the exhibit will also be able to convey how the passage of time can affect the feelings and attitudes of people.”

A Vietnam veteran himself, Felton said, “The war affected everyone differently. I think the Education Center and our collection will reflect and share our experiences with future generations.”


Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here