Honoring Vietnam veterans: Help us put a face on sacrifice

The genius of Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- “The Wall” -- is the visitor’s overwhelming sense of loss. The names of the dead, on 140 black granite panels, appear infinite in number.

It has been 32 years since The Wall was dedicated. It has become a place of healing, where Americans could separate the sacrifice of the warriors from what had become America’s most unpopular war.

Back then, a young veteran, Jan Scruggs, took $2,000 of his own money and began raising the $8.4 million in private contributions to build what has become one of Washington’s most visited monuments, attracting 4.4 million Americans in 2011 alone, according to the Washington Examiner.


Scruggs has now embarked on a new effort, one that will enable future generations to fully appreciate the sacrifice of those who gave their lives. Scruggs’ idea is to put faces to the names at a new Education Center that will be located between The Wall and the Lincoln Memorial.

The Education Center, Scruggs hopes, will be a place where visitors will be able to remember these 58,300 men and women for what they were -- living, breathing human beings, not just names carved into black granite.

The Education Center will display some of the more than 100,000 items that loved ones have placed at The Wall over the last three decades -- some touching, some funny, all deeply personal.

The Center will include a multimedia presentation where, organizers hope, visitors will be able to learn more about our fallen and all they sacrificed when they gave their lives.

Scruggs is no stranger to formidable tasks, but he’s come upon an obstacle that few would have predicted.

It has now been nearly four decades since the last American died in the Vietnam War, and photographs of the fallen are getting very difficult to find. Of the 58,300 who gave their lives, organizers have been able to locate about 36,000. Unless the others are found, the faces of these brave Americans may be lost to history, forever.

Throughout the nation, in attics, scrapbooks and yearbooks, there are photographs of each of the 58,300 young men and women who died all too soon, in our name.

These brave men and women grew up in the Kodak generation. There were snapshots taken at sporting events, proms, graduations, holidays and birthday parties; home movie cameras lovingly filmed them as they opened their presents, enjoyed family barbecues, worked on their cars or ran with their dogs.

There are 1,295 Tennesseans whose names are inscribed on The Wall. I am grateful that my Tennessee Senate colleagues have joined the mission to locate the remaining 699 photos. I hope my fellow state legislators across the country will do the same in their states.

These are the photographs and films that, organizers hope, will give our children a glimpse into the lives of the names on The Wall -- a window into all they left behind.

Perhaps you grew up with somebody who died in Vietnam, or knew one of these individuals in school.  If so, you can truly honor their sacrifice by taking a moment to look through your old photos and yearbooks.

If you are able to locate snapshots of a soldier who lost his or her life in Vietnam, please visit the website of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, www.vvmf.org, to submit the photo.

Your long-forgotten snapshot might ensure that generations to come will remember your friend or relative as more than just one of an infinite number of names.