Jay Kimbrough knows exactly where his name would be on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., had he not survived a hail of bullets in 1967. Now he’s on a mission to make sure the memories of those whose names did end up on the wall are preserved.
Kimbrough, the general counsel of the Texas A&M University System and the former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry, and San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt are spearheading an endeavor in Texas to help share the stories of the more than 58,000 Americans — including 3,416 Texans — whose names are etched into the Memorial Wall. Their stories will be part of a yet-to-be-built Education Center at the Wall that will contain digital images of and memorabilia from those who served. The center will display a selection of the more than 100,000 personal items left at the wall and provide educational resources to help ensure that those who visit will forge a connection to the men and women who died in Vietnam.
Construction on the Education Center, which was approved by Congress in 2003 and will be built below ground under the Wall, can’t begin until the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund raises $86 million in estimated costs. But Kimbrough and Holt are helping to raise the money and to craft a strategic plan for gathering the soldiers’ stories. The hope is that their work can serve as a model for other states.
Lisa Gough, communications director for the memorial fund, says Texas is the first state where grassroots efforts have sprouted, in part because there are more than 200,000 veterans here. Fund organizers knew they would find a receptive audience in Texas, which has the third-highest number of servicemembers killed in Vietnam. “It made sense to start in Texas,” Gough says.
Kimbrough and others plan to target active veterans groups and to speak at various war memorials and museums around the state to spread the word about the Education Center. It will take Kimbrough the summer to figure out exactly how to do it. But, he said, he’s no stranger to challenges. “After working several of my other missions in Texas, I know how to regionalize a strategy,” he said.
For his part, Holt is not only helping to spread the word in Texas about the center but has served as an adviser on the fund’s projects. Gough said Holt has spoken at the wall, helped raise money and was part of a recent delegation to Vietnam.
Technologies like digital cameras and video recorders have made it easier to memorialize those killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other more recent conflicts. Since those resources weren’t available during Vietnam, Kimbrough, Holt and other organizers have a challenge ahead. Other Texans are getting on board to help, too. Perry was the first on the nation's governors to get behind the effort. On Wednesday, he spoke at the kick-off event for the state's grassroots campaign. Two Texas oil companies, Conoco-Phillips and Marathon Oil, were first to make corporate donations to the project.
Like he’s done with his other projects in Texas, Kimbrough said he would give his new mission his all. “It’s important to Texas and the country, so I’m going to give it a whirl,” Kimbrough said.