By BRETT ZONGKER, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — It took almost 60 years for World War II veterans to get a monument in Washington. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened less than a decade after their war ended. Now with the Iraq war just over, and Afghanistan continuing, there are already plans to honor those veterans in a new National Mall tribute in the works.
It wouldn't be a full-scale Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial. But the group that built the Vietnam memorial wall of names tells The Associated Press that it will expand the scope of a planned education center nearby to include service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their photos would be displayed alongside those of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who died in the Vietnam conflict that ended in 1975.
The new facility, due to break ground in November and open in 2014, is an offshoot of the Vietnam memorial that opened on the Mall in 1982. The new underground space, to be called The Education Center at The Wall, will feature stories of the long line of U.S. war dead from various conflicts including Vietnam.
A major piece of the exhibition will be a video wall that will show visitors the photos, names and details of fallen fighters who had a birthday that particular day. That display, and some other parts of the exhibits, will now include veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund decided to expand the scope of the project to welcome their fellow veterans home, said Jan Scruggs, the founder and president of the fund. Vietnam veterans who experienced an often bitter return from an unpopular war want to give veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan a proper homecoming, he said.
"What is important now is that we tell the story about these people and what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and pay homage to their service, their duty," said Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran. "This will be the parade for these guys coming back from Iraq. This will be where these guys go."
Justin Constantine, a major in the Marine reserves from Fairfax, Va., who was shot and injured in Iraq and is consulting on the project, said he knows at least six fallen Marines who will be honored. He predicts many wounded warriors will want to visit the site.
"To get this kind of recognition in the nation's capital, right next to other very significant military memorials, means a lot of to us," he said. "It will make sure our sacrifice will never be forgotten."
As the last U.S. troops have returned home from Iraq, there has been some criticism of the lack of a parade in Washington or New York or other fanfare to honor their sacrifices.
Constantine said he didn't join the Marines to have a ticker-tape parade when he returned home. Still, he said, he doesn't want his fellow veterans to be forgotten.
The 42-year-old veteran was in Iraq only six weeks before he was shot in the head in October 2006. It took him five years to recover, and he will undergo more surgeries, including facial reconstruction, and therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.
He sees parallels between Iraq and the Vietnam war, but also differences with the absence of a draft. "We all know only 1 percent of the American population is involved in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.
Building an official national memorial honoring veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan or other terrorism hotspots will likely take years, though some smaller monuments have already been built in places like Fort Hood, Texas and Kokomo, Ind. Politicians in Washington also have sought to mark the end of the Iraq war and show their appreciation. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama is hosting a White House dinner to honor Iraq veterans.
Constantine said it's too soon for a large memorial in Washington, though, because many of the same troops who served in Iraq are still serving in Afghanistan. The war isn't over.
Still, he wants people to see the faces of soldiers who served and died in the most recent wars.
"I think it would be a tragedy if the American public forgot about us," he said. "I hope at some point it will be something more permanent than pictures."
Like those who served in Vietnam, the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan did the jobs their country asked them to do, Scruggs said. Those commonalities will tie their stories to the broader history of U.S. battles.