WASHINGTON (AP) – Jill Biden and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta joined an effort Wednesday to build an education center at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to tell the stories of generations of veterans killed in combat, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They gathered with military families for a ceremonial groundbreaking on a site next to the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall for the $85 million museum. Organizers still must raise $38 million before construction can begin.
The veterans group that built the Vietnam memorial wants to open the center in 2014, in time to welcome the last troops home from Afghanistan.
Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, said it’s important to have a place that explains what war memorials represent.
“There are many Americans who don’t know anyone in the military,” she said. “That’s why the education center is so important to me. It will help ensure that our veterans will always be remembered, not just in name but by their actions.”
Each of the 58,000 fallen soldiers listed on the Vietnam memorial wall will be pictured in the center with details about their lives. Some of the 400,000 mementos left at the memorial wall since it opened in 1982 will be displayed there, including Purple Hearts from both world wars, Korea and Vietnam.
The group that built the Vietnam memorial told The Associated Press earlier this year it is expanding the scope of the planned education center to honor more recent service members, well before they have a memorial of their own.
More than 6,600 U.S. soldiers killed since 9/11 will be pictured alongside their predecessors who served in Vietnam. Exhibits could feature the last battle flag brought home from Iraq and history dating back to the American Revolution.
Panetta said it will be a “new national landmark” by remembering all veterans, including the 9/11 generation, which has fought in the nation’s longest time of warfare.
“The lessons of war that we have learned must never, ever be forgotten,” Panetta said. “We also know today’s veterans deserve a healing place of their own.”
Retired Adm. Michael Mullen, a Vietnam veteran who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the nation needs a place to foster greater understanding about war.
“To memorialize those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan so quickly, it just means a lot to the country, to the families, to the military,” he told the AP. “Look how long it took to get the World War II Memorial _ that was just fairly recent.”
Parents of soldiers who were killed in the most recent wars said having a place to honor their service will mean they won’t be forgotten.
Michael McClung, a Vietnam veteran whose daughter Megan McClung was the first female U.S. Marine Corps officer killed in combat in Iraq in 2006, said everyone should learn about at least one fallen service member.
“We have a legacy of service, and we only ask that you remember us,” he said. But McClung said he’s worried people are already forgetting the nation’s war history from the past decade.
“People are already beginning to forget why we were there (in Iraq),” he said. “Whether it was the right reason or the wrong reason is immaterial; we had a reason to go.”
Janice Chance of Owings Mills, Md., clutched a framed photo of her son, Marine Corps Capt. Jesse Melton III, who died in 2008 in combat during an explosion in Afghanistan.
“Jesse, I know, would be happy to know that people remember,” she said, “that his service was not taken for granted.”
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