Wall Street Journal November 26, 2012
Beyond The Memorial, A Vietnam War Education
'The Wall' is a place of healing, but let's ensure that future generations understand the sacrifices that Americans made.
By Richard Myers and George W. Casey Jr.
When we were young men during the Vietnam War, our country's debate over the conflict dominated the national conversation, overshadowing the stories of courageous, selfless Americans risking their lives on the battlefield. As generals in the post-9/11 world, we know the wartime climate has changed. Even while citizens often vigorously debate the use of military force, they still recognize the profound heroism of our men and women in uniform.
Now, as our nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam conflict, we must be sure that generations to come remember the military's sacrifices. Americans have a sacred obligation to those who fought bravely in Vietnam, and to their families, to rescue their stories from the past.
Vietnam was a divisive period for the nation, and the rough treatment many veterans of that war experienced thankfully seems foreign today. But many Americans at the time were angry about the war, and some reacted against returning troops. At airports, universities and elsewhere, protesters screamed insults at veterans or otherwise targeted those returning from combat.
Such controversy stole attention away from the extraordinary sacrifices made by the millions who served as volunteers and draftees. Like many of that generation, we were pained to see these men and women forgotten, particularly those we were close to. One of us was a combat pilot who lost friends over North Vietnam. The other lost a father in Vietnam.
Thirty years ago, using only private contributions, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a place of healing on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Wall has since become a sacred and iconic place for the entire nation. However, as the years continue to pass since the conflict ended, it is evident that the mission to honor the legacy of Vietnam veterans isn't complete.
As Medal of Honor recipient Brian Thacker noted in 2009, "The Wall that heals must now become The Wall that educates." Using The Wall as a backdrop, we can make yet another profound contribution to this country by helping future generations understand the sacrifices made by those who have answered the nation's call to duty in a legacy of service stretching over 200 years.
In 2003, to bring to life the names engraved there, Congress authorized the building of The Education Center at The Wall. The center will feature an impressive exhibit including photos of Americans lost in Vietnam and select items from the 400,000 pieces of memorabilia that have been left at The Wall by loved ones, friends and visitors over the past three decades.
But the Education Center won't be limited to the Vietnam War. It will honor all those who have served America, going all the way back to 1775. It will offer a special tribute to those who have served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, displaying daily photos of America's fallen from the post-9/11 engagements. The goal is to open the center's doors in 2014, when most U.S. troops are set to return from Afghanistan.
Thanks to the enormous support of individuals, foundations, corporations and members of the international community (including the governments of Australia, Singapore and New Zealand), the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has raised more than half of the necessary $85 million for the center. But we can't begin building until we raise the rest.
The center's ceremonial groundbreaking will take place Wednesday with a bipartisan cadre in attendance of government leaders, senior military officials, veterans, Gold Star family members (of those killed in action) and supporters. All veterans have earned their place in American history. It is a national duty to ensure that their stories are never forgotten.
Gen. Myers (U.S. Air Force) served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2001 to 2005. Gen. Casey (U.S. Army) served as Army chief of staff from 2007 to 2011.