By Christopher Robbins
October 26, 2013
HOLMDEL – Many hands helped put together the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial and Vietnam Era Museum and Educational Center, but they were guided by three governors’ leadership.
At Friday night’s 15th Anniversary Gala, the memorial and museum honored former N.J. governors Thomas Kean, James Florio and Christine Todd Whitman for their dedication and work during the project’s design and construction.
Whitman said New Jersey should petition to make the museum a national site.
“That is probably the next step, that this is not just a New Jersey site, this is a national site,” Whitman said. “It is an important site, the way it is put together, the volunteers, it is an experience that you don’t get anywhere else. It is a different experience than just visiting a memorial.”
New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation Vice President Beverly Fedorko-Ott said the governors were all responsible for different phases of the memorial and museum project.
“Each made their own mark on New Jersey with positive contributions and innovative solutions to the challenges we faced,” Fedorko-Ott said. “At this point I would normally read a biography, but their formal biographies wouldn’t tell you the passion and genuine care that each governor shared with moving forward with the memorial and education center.”
Kean, who served as governor from 1982 to 1990, was unable to attend the gala. Kean signed legislation to fund the initial museum and memorial, breaking ground on the project.
Florio, who held the statehouse from 1990 to 1994 said completion of the memorial wasn’t a matter of if, but when.
“I think we as Americans have come to realize that veterans made the sacrifices and did the things that had to be done,” Florio said. “We separate them from the politics of the event and we treasure them.”
Whitman, governor from 1994 to 2001, said she recognized that the memorial couldn’t tell the whole story of the Vietnam conflict, leading her to support calls for a museum.
“Again, everybody recognized that is what was missing. It is great to have a memorial, but. then to go through the center, that is what carries the message forward to future generations,” Whitman said. “To see real people, to read their letters, they had families, they had souls, they were out there, real people, flesh and blood. To know what was happening from people who were living it is very different. I think that brings the message home to younger generations.”
“This is history, there is a need to clarify and get people to understand that this is very important,” Florio said. “The educational function is essential, to give them a flavor of the atmosphere at the time.”
For 15 years, the Vietnam Era Museum and Educational Center has preserved the memories of personnel who served in the conflict at educated generations of Americans who only viewed the war from afar, or in history class.
The outer-wall of the circular museum is ringed by two sets of displays, on the bottom a military history of the conflict tracing back to the pre-colonial era in Vietnam, and a history of the homefront.
The inner circle of the museum is lined by letters, correspondence and memorabilia from service men and women and their families.
It is the tour guides, however, that bring the museum to life.
Bill McClung, who served with the First Cavalry in Vietnam, volunteers at the museum.
“When we bring students through the museum, it helps that they aren’t just reading the walls and looking at the exhibits,” McClung said. “We contextualize it and give the era a human face.
Dedicated in September 1998, the Museum & Educational Center is the first and only institution of its kind in the United States with exhibits and programs devoted to encouraging and fostering an understanding of the Vietnam War era and the adjacent Memorial pays homage to the 1,562 soldiers from N.J. who were killed or listed as missing during the Vietnam War.
On Veterans Day, the museum will host a groundbreaking for an installation of a display of a 1964 Bell UH-1D Iroquios helicopter, better known as a Huey, being rebuilt by volunteers in Wall Township.