Photos give a new way to permanently honor Vietnam veterans in Washington, D.C.

A group is collecting photos of all veterans killed in Vietnam as part of a new education center to be built on the National Mall.

58,000 names are etched in polished black granite at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Since 1982, this simplistic memorial to Vietnam veterans who lost their life on the other side of the world is visited by some three million people every year. As those visitors descend below ground level along the path of the wall, the effect is a sobering experience. The chatter and light atmosphere seen that accompanies visits to other monuments in Washington is absent at the wall. There’s a heaviness not present elsewhere along the mall.

“This is not a memorial to the Vietnam War. This is a memorial to Vietnam Veterans,” said Jim Knotts, president and CEO of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. “It’s never been political. It’s never been military, it’s about those who answer the call to service and made the ultimate sacrifice to their country.”

Thirty five years ago, the VVMF raised money to build the wall. “The question that I hear all the time about Vietnam is ‘what’s next’, what’s next for the wall, what’s next for our Vietnam veterans,” Knotts said.

The answer is an education center to be built across the street from the wall near the Lincoln memorial. “That’s where people will really get a better idea of what it means to have 58,000 names on the wall. 58,000 lives cut short. Families forever affected.”

Plans for the education center include educational presentations focused on the motivations for sending troops to Vietnam. “What were we trying to accomplish, and why was it necessary for 58,000 Americans to serve and give their lives,” Knotts said.

It’s also a way to show more respect to those returning soldiers who weren’t treated well when coming home from Vietnam. These days, returning troops are celebrated at welcome home ceremonies. In August, a group of Delaware Army National Guard members returning after supporting the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria were celebrated with a formal ceremony in Smyrna, Delaware. U.S. Senator from Delaware Tom Carper, who served three tours as a Navy flight officer in Vietnam, was part of the welcome home committee.

“When my squadron came back to California, I can assure you the governor wasn’t there, U.S. senators weren’t there, our congressman, attorney general, I mean, we were happy to be home, but I’m not so sure everyone else was,” Carper said.

He’s looking forward to seeing how the education center will continue to tell the story of the Vietnam veterans he served with. “I think that memorial is just incredibly beautiful and moving and it does tell the story that a lot of people served over there, a lot of people laid down their lives,” Carper said. “I think the idea of better telling the story would be terrific, I’d love to see that done.”

One way the story will be told at the education center is through pictures. The memorial fund group is collecting photos of every veteran who is listed on the wall. All 58,000.

“You really get a sense that this was a complete life, this was a person with hopes and dreams, with family with friends with buddies,” Knotts said. “They were high school athletes, they were college leaders, they really run the gamut of our society in every facet.”

They’ve collected more than 50,000 photos so far “We’ve made great progress, Delaware, actually we received the last photo of those from Delaware earlier in 2017,and right now today, we have 117 that we need from New Jersey, and 68 that we need from Pennsylvania,” Knotts said.

The center will also feature an exhibit of items that have been left at the wall by friends and loved ones over the past 35 years. “Whether it’s a teddy bear left by a mother, or it’s a stack of love letters left by a fiancé who was never able to get married to that person, or a can of beer or a pack of smokes, whatever it might be that one buddy owed to the other or wanted to share with them, and came to the wall to do it,” Knotts said.

In addition to the wall, the southern end of the National Mall is already home to some of the most recognizable monuments in the world spanning from the Lincoln Memorial, up the massive reflecting pool to the World War II memorial and eventually the Washington monument. Organizers hope The Education Center at the Wall will be a starting point for visitors to the Mall.

“This is a project that will cost about $130 million and we’ve made a great deal of progress raising just over a third of that at 42 million, but we have a long way to go,” Knotts said.

The legislation approving the education center requires organizers to raise the entire $130 million cost of the project before starting construction. With about $90 million to go, Knotts isn’t sure when they’ll be able to start, but it should take about two years to complete once ground is broken.

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