NATION'S CAPITAL Site to honor disabled veterans
The two recent wars have left 6,000 to 8,000 soldiers severely injured.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Soldiers returning from Iraq and other conflicts with missing limbs and shattered bodies will have a place of honor among the memorials of the nation's capital.
Planners are raising money for a new site -- nestled among the tributes to fallen war heroes, from World War II, Korea and Vietnam -- to salute roughly 3 million disabled veterans.
The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial is expected to open in the next three to four years on an impressive two-acre site near the National Mall, just steps from the Capitol.
Authorized by federal legislation in 2000, the future memorial has taken on added meaning as Americans watch a new generation of disabled veterans return from war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Now it's even more important than ever with the number of people coming back wounded, maimed and in some cases disabled for life," said Arthur Wilson, president of the Disabled Veterans' LIFE Memorial Foundation, the group planning the project. "This will be the only war memorial that will honor the living as opposed to the deceased."
The foundation is in the midst of a $65 million private fund-raising campaign to build the memorial. Earlier this year, the group tapped former Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi to join its advisory board and help raise the private funds needed to design and build the site.
Actor Gary Sinise, who played the crusty, wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran Lt. Dan in the movie "Forrest Gump," is serving as a national spokesman for the memorial.
Inspiration for the memorial came from an unlikely source: philanthropist Lois Pope, a former Broadway actress and widow of National Enquirer founder Generoso Pope.
Pope said she was moved by the story of wounded soldiers in the 1970s, after she performed for injured veterans at the Rusk Rehabilitation Center in New York.
"I chose the song 'Somewhere' from 'West Side Story' and one of the lyrics goes, 'Hold my hand and I'll take you there,'" she said in a telephone interview from her office in Delray Beach, Fla. "I looked down and one of the men had no hands, but he smiled, and it changed my life."
Several years later, she began working with then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown to persuade Congress to approve the memorial. It received strong bipartisan support, and President Clinton signed legislation authorizing the plan in 2000. Pope has already donated $2 million toward the project and has pledged to give more through matching gifts.
The memorial's design -- still being fine-tuned -- features a reflecting pool with an eternal flame at the center, surrounded by a grove of trees. Two walls of glass will be etched with quotations from dignitaries and veterans of various wars, with comments discussing when they were injured and how they cope with being disabled.
Four 9-foot-tall bronze sculptures interspersed in openings along the glass wall will show the human body in various states of injury to suggest a sense of loss.
Ironically, interest in the memorial has increased since the Iraq war began. So far, the foundation has raised more than $10 million and received support and donations from a variety of veterans groups, including Kansas City, Mo.-based Veterans of Foreign Wars, which donated $100,000.
Though there are no firm statistics yet on how many disabled veterans have emerged from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rate of severe injuries is higher than previous wars because improvements in body armor and battlefield medical treatment allow more troops to survive blast injuries.
Jeremy Chwat, policy director of the service members' aid group Wounded Warrior Project, estimates 6,000 to 8,000 of the wounded soldiers in the conflicts have suffered severe injuries.
"And by severe, we mean living with a disability for the rest of their lives," Chwat said.
That includes more than 1,000 soldiers suffering traumatic brain injury and nearly 400 amputees -- many from roadside bombs -- according to the latest figures from the U.S. Army Medical Command and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
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