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New center to put faces with Vietnam names

Organizers collecting photos of fallen troops for memorial near the Wall

By JOE GROMELSKI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 20, 2009

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WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel held up a photo of a soldier in Vietnam, and talked about the young man from Buffalo, N.Y., who "instructed all of us on noodle preparation and macaroni and some of the finer fare that you get" in an Italian-American community. "Occasionally he would somehow get a bottle of fairly decent red wine. He had many skills, I can tell you that."

The soldier in the photo, Spec. 4 Tony Palumbo of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division, fought through the Tet Offensive in early 1968, but was killed when the Viet Cong renewed its attack in May of that year. Hagel and his brother, Tom, were both wounded in action in Vietnam, earning five Purple Heart medals between them, but they survived to become a two-term U.S. senator from Nebraska and a law professor, respectively.

They still think about their friend Tony, which is why Chuck Hagel brought the photo to a news conference last week to scan it into a database for the proposed Education Center at the wall.

The two-story underground center, to be located west of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, will prominently feature photos of the 58,261 servicemembers whose names are on the memorial. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has teamed up with FedEx on a campaign to secure the photos; workers at more than 1,600 FedEx Office Print and Ship Centers across the country will be ready to scan pictures of the fallen. Photos can also be uploaded through the Web at www.vvmfcenter.org.

"I hope that today’s launch will inspire us to seek out and bring to light the faces and stories of all the names on the wall," said Colleen Shine, whose father, Air Force Lt. Col. Anthony Shine, and uncle, Army 1st Lt. Jonathan Shine, both died in Vietnam.

"Faces to names" is how Peter Holt, chairman of the education center’s building committee and owner of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, summarizes it.

"It personalizes it," Hagel said. "Any time you personalize anything, it always has a deeper emotional ring to it and tie to it when you see a face and understand a person’s life and have some personal dimension.

"It brings out a certain humanity that oftentimes gets lost in this town," Hagel added. "This town is about abstractions. We talk about policy, committing a nation to war, foreign policy. It rarely gets down much deeper than that, as to the consequences, as to who fights a war, the human tragedy, the great suffering, the great loss."

"The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was never about debating the war," Hagel said. "It was all about those who died, those who made the sacrifices, and their lives. This just amplifies that point."

As the photo project takes off, planning and fundraising continues for the education center. The aim of the center, which will display some of the thousands of items left as tributes at the wall, is "to teach a really important lesson to Americans, and especially American youth," according to VVMF founder and president Jan Scruggs.

That lesson involves "honor, honesty, responsibility, courage, [doing] your duty," Hagel said. The target audience is "the next generation and the next generation and the next generation — not trying to convince them of anything — that’s not the point here — but education and information and being anchored to something greater than your own self-interest," he said.

"For me, the focus on values of what military service has meant to this great democracy of ours, going all the way back to Bunker Hill, is as important" in the education center, said Holt, who served with 54 men whose names are on the wall.

"I think it’s a broader scope. ... The wall is a wonderful thing, but we really don’t want this to be Vietnam Wall II, for lack of a better term."


Lewiston, Michigan, middle school students McKenzie Mathewson, left, and Shannon Kievit scan a photo of their hometown hero, Cpl. Michael Pynnonen. The two students also raised more than $1,400 in donations and pledges for the new education center.
JOE GROMELSKI / S&S

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