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Vietnam project aims to collect photographs; Beltrami, Cass soldiers on list of missing photos

Organizers of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund hope to collect a photo of each of the 58,282 veterans named on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C. The photos will be displayed in a future education center near the memorial. So far, they have collected 27,644 photos. This rendering shows what the future exhibit will look like. Submitted Photo

BISMARCK -- A future education center in Washington, D.C., will display photos of Minnesota soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Organizers of the Education Center at the Wall, which is slated to open Veterans Day 2014, are seeking the public's help so a photo of every U.S. soldier killed in Vietnam can be featured in an exhibit.

The digital photo exhibit will honor the 58,282 soldiers whose names appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This includes 1,075 Minnesotans.

So far, they have collected 27,644 photos from around the country, including 452 from Minnesota. They still need photos of 623 Minnesotans - including six from Beltrami County and two from Cass County - killed in the conflict.

"These were mostly very young men who had hopes and dreams and lives that they left behind," said Lee Allen, spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C., which is behind the project. "We see them right now as a list of names, and we need to look beyond the name and scratch the surface and take a look at who they were."

Organizers have had great success getting photos from some states, such as North Dakota, but others, such as Minnesota, have been more challenging, Allen said.

"We hope to get as many (photos) as we can," he said. "We certainly don't have to have them all in order to open, but we're hoping we'll have a good majority of the photos by the time we open."

The education center also will feature photos of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Jan Scruggs, president and founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. These photos already have been collected.

The approximately $85 million education center will be located between the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. The 35,000-square-foot center will be built underground so it doesn't obstruct the views of these memorials, Allen said.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund received approval for the center's design this month and plans to break ground later this year, Allen said.

The Education Center at the Wall will be a state-of-the-art visitors' center and education facility, he said. Visitors will see a timeline that describes the Vietnam War era.

"It was a very divisive time in American history," Allen said. "We're going to tell the story of the Vietnam War and put it into historical context - What was America like then? What were people concerned about? What was all the noise about? - and tell the story both on the home front and the battle front."

The center also will display some of the 300,000 items that have been left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial over the years, Allen said. Every day, National Park Service rangers collect the items, which are stored in Maryland.

Items include Purple Hearts from World War I, letters from children who never met their fathers, a pack of cigarettes for a fallen comrade and a motorcycle that won't be started until all Vietnam prisoners of war are accounted for, Allen said.

"Part of the reason behind this education center is to get those items out ... and display them for the public to see," Allen said.

Although there will be a focus on the Vietnam War, the center will celebrate American military service from Bunker Hill to Baghdad, Allen said.

"By putting that (Vietnam) war into historical context as one of America's conflicts, we're going to be able to tell a bigger story and celebrate service in a bigger way," he said.

The Education Center at the Wall is the "final mission" for Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran from Maryland who received a Purple Heart, Allen said. Scruggs also pushed for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which opened in 1982 and is marking its 30th anniversary this year.

"He came home and realized that the war was - and the warriors in particular were not - being properly remembered and decided the National Mall was the place to do this," Allen said.

About 3.5 million people now visit the wall per year, he said.

Supporters of the Education Center at the Wall hope it will also be a popular tourist destination.

"This will provide a very meaningful and significant learning experience for people," Scruggs said of the center. "It will celebrate honor and duty, courage and integrity of the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War."