So difficult; so worth it
Q: A new book called "Where Good Ideas Come From" concludes that innovations usually occur when ideas from different people "bump against each other" and spawn a winning combination. But have you ever been struck with a great idea of your own making? If so, did it meet with resistance, and did it turn out to be a success?
Perhaps my fate is to have winning ideas that the public fully appreciates -- and uses -- after a great deal of work is has been performed done over a period of years by a small cadre of committed people. There is a discernable pattern here. Let me explain.
I am the person who, in 1979, proposed the idea for what would become the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. This idea came out of my work at American University in graduate school, when I studied and became a recognized authority on what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I earned credentials as an "authority" by publishing articles in the Washington Post and Military Medicine and testifying before a Senate Subcommittee. I was also an infantry veteran of the war.
I believed a public memorial would help us -- those who served, our families, all Americans -- to come to terms with this recent war.
In my naive mind, everything seemed easy: Get a site, select a design engraved with the names of the fallen, raise the money, and dedicate the Memorial engraved with the names of the fallen from Vietnam.
Just the opposite turned out to be true: This would be a very complex endeavor requiring an act of of Congress. There was also the largest design competition in the history of Western civilization. When the winning design was revealed, a nationwide controversy erupted, with critics calling the design a " Black Gash of Shame" and demanding that the effort be halted.
The entire effort indeed was stopped as we were preparing for a construction permit. A
congressman saw a December 1981 article in the Chicago Tribune falsely alleging that a member of the design jury had involvement with the American Communist Party. I was suddenly appearing on "60 Minutes" and network news.
We finally made a compromise with the opposition through the efforts of Sen. John Warner ( R-Va.), agreeing to add what is now the Three Servicemen Statue, to make more relatable a design too unconventional for many.
The Wall was dedicated in 1982; the statue in 1984. There was actually an NBC TV movie made to portray these events entitled "To Heal A Nation." I was played by actor Eric Roberts.
The entire adventure taught me that great things and visions become reality through the work of many hands. We at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund were guided by volunteers with credentials from places like the Harvard Business School and West Point. We had a full-time staff and a professional public relations firm giving us advice. I had frequent talks with former Attorney General Elliot Richardson and other notables of the time. A bipartisan group of members of Congress helped us prevail legislatively.
The Wall is a great success. There have been tens of millions of visitors to this sacred place. And more than 120,000 items have been left at the Memorial.
Veterans make a pilgrimage there -- many are drawn there for solace. Rolling Thunder has hundreds of thousands of bikers annually on Memorial Day. The names of America's fallen are exactly where they should be -- near the Capitol, the State Department and the White House. Their voices are silent, but their presence speaks in a profound manner under the gaze of President Lincoln.
Ten years ago I had another simple idea due, primarily, to the urging of educators who took school groups there. A small visitor center could be built near the Memorial showing a few items left there, some photos of the fallen and some history about the War and the Memorial.
I was awaiting passage of the legislation when I received a frightening call on, appropriately, Halloween 2000. I drove to Washington to find that a senator had
placed a hold on the legislation. The legislative process would have to start over
again in 2001 and yet again in 2003. There was organized opposition to the legislation.
At Senate hearings, an agreement was reached. Congress insisted that the visitors center be placed underground. There were delays engineered by very clever minds until November 2003, when the bill was signed into law.
Despite an amazing grassroots movement of students, teachers, veterans groups,
organized labor and former U.S. President Gerald Ford, the effort took more than three years of work, much of it around the clock when Congress was in session. The will of the people finally prevailed.
A simple idea became a project of complexity in engineering and design, as well as huge financial requirements. The actual Memorial cost less than $9 million, including all costs from construction to fundraising and establishing an office and staff. We still need to raise another $50 million or so, but this will be accomplished.
Hiring the best talent is always wise. The exhibit designer is Ralph Applelbaum, who designed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center and the Newseum here in Washington DC. The architect was told to find a site near the Memorial, but which would not interfere with the Memorial experience. The siting took years of time, study and careful review.
The final site will allow visitors to visit the education center without making visual contact with the Memorial. The center brilliantly uses the view of the Lincoln Memorial in the entrance experience, allowing visitors to see others who are walking to see The Wall. They will feel The Wall but will not see it.
In 2004 we clearly needed to decide what the exhibits would become in the education center at The Wall. An advisory group of historians, veterans groups, government officials and military leaders began a series of meetings chaired by the dynamic and respected Gen. Barry McCaffrey.
For months, great minds went back and forth about the historical purpose of the center and the mandate from Congress. The essential mandate was to recognize the service to the nation rendered by the veterans of Vietnam. Yet many veterans feel that their service was tarnished in behalf of by a highly misguided policy. And how far does the center go down the road of unresolvable debates over a war that ended decades ago? Is this education center the right place for such debate or not?
Applelbaum had an idea. This is why people hire him. He suggested that the education center should, consistent with other symbols and spaces on the Washington Mall, aspire to instill time-honored national ideals.
"I will ask you to consider using the Education Center to teach about values," he said. "Values worthy of the sacrifice of your colleagues. The names on the Wall are there because of a sense of duty that each felt to the wider national community. They
are there for the same reasons that the soldiers fought at Concord Bridge, Normandy and the Iraq. Our nation's defenders have values of courage, honor and respect. They each felt a sense of duty to nation and have put their lives at risk. These are values that we must recognize on the Mall and which will put the other Mall War Memorials in context."
It is significant that these national values are the very ones injured by the war in Vietnam. Those who believed in doing their duty were sometimes scorned and castigated. The result of the conflict, a communist victory, was not what was planned.
People I served with were drafted and were willing, although not especially happy, to serve in combat. The same is likely true for American soldiers in other wars. Serving was
a duty owed to one's nation during time of armed conflict. This is a value worth elevating.
There will be a place where these values like this will be remembered, near the place where 58,000 names are engraved of people who did their duty when asked by the nation. With Ralph Appelbaum's help, we turned the "problem" of the memory of Vietnam on its head: precisely because that war is sometimes blamed for corroding American military honor, the education center is the perfect site for revivifying it -- for attesting again to the momentousness of the sacrifice made my servicemen and women in all conflicts.
This is the task ahead. We sometimes get a winning combination when people "bump into each other" and think of new solutions.
This, readers, was an a-hah! moment. This will be unlike anything that has ever been done. The learning experience will be both profound and extraordinary.
Raising money in this environment is not easy. However, we will finish this job. Vietnam veterans like Fred Smith of FedEx are helping. The VFW will be giving over $1 million. There is a huge grassroots campaign in Texas fueled by a million-dollar challenge from San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt. One company -- Time Warner -- gave us $10 million.
There is a lot of effort underway, with enthusiastic people working very hard across the nation. The center will be a place where that small percentage of Americans on whom the nation has relied upon for its defense will be honored, using the entire Mall, but with special proximity and synergy to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
This goal will be accomplished with powerful visual imagery showing, on large screens, the photographs of the fallen from Vietnam. The screens will also convey values like loyalty and courage through quotes from letters of the fallen, who wrote about values such as their sense of personal sense of duty that led them to agree to risk their lives for the nation.
There will be a display of some of the items left at The Wall. These each tell stories. One veteran left a watch stopped at 10:05 -- the time at which his friend, who asked everyone in the platoon what time it was, was killed by a landmine in Vietnam.
Another veteran left a photo of an enemy soldier who he killed when the enemy hesitated as they each pointed their rifles at each other. The soldier's photo showed him holding his child in Hanoi. The entire family later met the American veteran.
There are wedding rings, dog tags, boomerangs left by Australian vets, and hundreds of Purple Hearts -- some from other wars.
The education center at The Wall will be a profound learning experience where people will one day appreciate that the small number of people who play a dramatic and difficult role in the American experience through risking and giving their lives for our freedom and our way of life. An exit experience will show those who served earlier -- in places like Bunker Hill, Iwo Jima, Inchon, Fort McHenry and the Belleau Wood.
While we are picking out a restaurant to eat on Saturday night, remember there are some of your fellow citizens likely putting a wounded Marine in a helicopter in Afghanistan. One day Americans will come to the education center and better understand the commitment, courage and sense of duty of these citizens to whom we owe so much -- like our freedom and safety.
I was in Vietnam with a soldier named Charlie. He left the service and became a Catholic priest. He also wrote some profound words. I hope you will read them.
Bury Me With Soldiers
-- by the Rev. Charlie Fink
I've played a lot of roles in life; I've met a lot of men.
I've done some things I'd like to think
I wouldn't do again.
And though I'm young, I'm old enough to know
Some day I'll die, and to think about
What lies beyond, beside whom I would lie.
Perhaps it doesn't matter much;
Still if I had my choice, I'd want a grave,
Amongst soldiers when at last death quells my voice.
I'm sick of the hypocrisy of lectures of the wise.
I'll take the man, with all the flaws,
Who goes through scared, and dies.
The troops I knew were commonplace
They didn't want the war;
They fought because their Fathers
and their Fathers had before.
They cursed and killed and wept
... God knows they're easy to deride
... But bury me with men like these;
They faced the guns and died.
It's funny when you think of it,
The way we got along.
We'd come from different worlds
To live in one where no one belongs.
I didn't even like them all;
I'm sure they'd all agree.
Yet I would give my life for them
I know some did for me.
So bury me with soldiers, please,
Though much maligned they be.
Yes, bury me with soldiers,
For I miss their company.
We'll not soon see their likes again;
We've had our fill of war.
But bury me with men like them
Till someone else does more."
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