A Welcome Home for America’s Soldiers in 2014

by Jan C. Scruggs

America has been at war since 2001. Even though only a small percentage of the American population has been busy with the fighting, more than 30,000 have been wounded and nearly 7,000 have died. There will be more casualties in Afghanistan before it is said and done. One has many emotions when visiting these injured soldiers in military hospitals. Many Americans have not even met a soldier who has been fighting overseas.

A clever wag noted that while the Army is at war, Americans are at the shopping malls. Of the U.S. population ages 18 and older, less than one percent is in uniform. The challenges they have faced are extraordinary. There are many skirmishes and some large battles fought by Marines in Iraq that are similar to those fought by Marines at Khe Sahn in South Vietnam. America’s troops are heroes. There are certainly questions about the wisdom of sending these fine citizens to places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, but they go as requested by Congress and the President.

A young man from Honolulu was fighting in Iraq. He was an accomplished surfer who had recently completed his MBA. His name was First Lt. Nainna Hoe and as he approached a village by foot to assure the locals that he wanted to help them, the bullets began flying. Hoe was killed that day. His father was a decorated Vietnam veteran and when he was in Washington for a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he met the nurse who tried to save his son’s life.

Ron Montapert was also a surfer. He served during the Vietnam War, and like Hoe, he did not come home. Montapert is a friend of Tom Selleck, our national spokesperson, who always looks at his friend’s name when he visits The Wall.

There are many stories like these. These veterans with their courage and sacrifice can inspire us all with their stories. The veterans of Vietnam have been at the hospitals and airports welcoming these soldiers home.

Back in 1982, I organized a parade for America’s Vietnam Veterans called “Marching Along, Together Again.” Tens of thousands of Vietnam vets marched to their new Memorial–The Wall–that day. This year, the nation began a multi-year commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War and we at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund are also commemorating the 30th anniversary of the dedication of The Wall. It would be my great honor to see Vietnam veterans march side by side with veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq to the Education Center at the Wall when we dedicate that building. We can do this in 2014.

The place will be both extraordinary and moving. The Education Center will be a state-of-the-art facility designed to teach generations of visitors about values like duty, courage, honor and integrity—ideals that have been foundational to U.S. military since 1775, when American troops first fought for freedom. The major vehicle for teaching these values will be photographs. The “Faces of The Fallen” display will present photos of fallen heroes—most of them from the Vietnam War, but also from the current wars. The photographs will be powerful, but not the only exhibit. Another will display some of the 300,000 items left at The Wall.

At an event in Jackson, Mississippi, people drove for hours to give a photo of a loved one to the Education Center. In New Mexico and North Dakota, veterans worked and collected all of the photos of their Vietnam War casualties. From Orlando to Seattle, grassroots Americans are at work. This effort is assisted by leaders in Congress, veterans groups, teachers, students, labor unions, state governors and more.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is trying to complete the fundraising effort and break ground in 2012. For now, the focus is on raising another $40 million and people are responding. VVMF staff and I meet regularly with people who see the value of this project and want to get it completed on schedule. That includes wealthy individuals and big corporations to dedicated patriots at the grassroots level. It is now a race against the clock.

This week, supporters are hosting a fundraiser in Maui attempting to collect $42,000 to honor the 42 Hawaiians who did not return from Vietnam. A single volunteer in Denver personally raised more than $120,000. A real hero is Australia, which donated more than $3 million. We are also meeting with other foreign governments who have an interest in recognizing the sacrifices their citizens made. Our own government is considering a financial assistance to build a facility that will actually produce revenue for the National Mall.

“The beginning of the end of war is remembrance,” wrote Herman Wouk. For the Americans fighting today in Afghanistan, there is little we can do except pray for their safety. But in 2014, we hope to have something that will really lift their spirits. With some luck, we can have the Education Center at The Wall built and plan a parade to bring together the veterans of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Desert Storm, Somalia and other conflicts. Now that would be something for the nation to celebrate.