From left, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden; Interior Secretary Ken Salazar; and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. applaud Nov. 28 during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's next project to honor veterans, the Education Center at The Wall, in Washington. The center will tell the stories of 58,000 soldiers who died in the Vietnam War and will honor fallen soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)
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Capt. Jesse Melton III, 29, was killed in 2008 in an explosion in Afghanistan. His mother, Janice Chance, wants the world to remember more than just a name.
"His eyes. I want them to see the commitment and pride he's had in his eyes since he was a child," Chance says, clutching two framed photos of her fallen Marine.
Her dream — the dream of many families like hers —— is now a little closer.
On Wednesday, military brass and Washington VIPs broke ground on the Education Center at The Wall.
The center is across the street from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It will tell the stories of the 58,282 service members who died in the Vietnam War, or later as a result of Vietnam service, and those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Jan Scruggs, president and founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
"It warms my heart," Chance said. "The center will put a face to the name. It will tell the stories behind all of these heroes."
Once built, the 35,000-square-foot Education Center will have a "Wall of Faces" with photos of fallen service members, a changing display of the more than 400,000 personal items that have been left at the Wall over the past 30 years, a timeline of the Vietnam War and an exhibit about what veterans experienced when they came home.
The center has been in the works for 12 years. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has raised $47 million of the $85 million cost.
"We are a little over halfway there," Scruggs says. "We have a lot of momentum now. We can knock this out of the park."
Construction can't begin until the full $85 million is raised — a requirement for construction on the National Mall — but the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund decided to do the groundbreaking ceremony now in hopes that people will be inspired to donate, spokeswoman Jennifer Rowell said.
Scruggs hopes construction will be complete and the center's doors open in 2014, in time for the return of the troops from Afghanistan.
At the ceremonial groundbreaking, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the center would be "a new national landmark."
Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Biden, said, "There are many Americans who don't know anyone in the military. That's why the Education Center is so important to me. It will help ensure that our veterans will always be remembered, not just in name but by their actions."
Thirty years have passed since the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of official U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
"This will connect the nation's past with the nation's future," Scruggs said. "A photograph … it really brings a person alive. It's really different than just seeing a name. "
Vietnam veteran Virgil Deckard's brother, David L. Deckard, is listed on The Wall. Virgil Deckard lost his son, Matthew, in Iraq. Both will be represented in the Education Center.
"They missed out on a lot. They were young," Deckard said. "There are more than 58,000 names on that wall, but with the center, it will be personal. Finally, the real stories will be told."
Michael McClung, a Vietnam veteran whose daughter Megan was the first female Marine Corps officer killed in combat in Iraq in 2006, said everyone should learn about at least one fallen service member.
"We have a legacy of service," he said, "and we only ask that you remember us."