Education and Remembrance on the Banks of the James

by Jon Baliles

The Virginia War Memorial sits solemnly upon the edge of Oregon Hill overlooking the city and the James River and honors the 12,000+ Virginia names of those who have fallen in service of our country since 1956. But in recent decades, it has become a place of education as well as of remembrance.

In 2010, the memorial opened the E. Bruce Heilman Amphitheater overlooking the city and hosts annual Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies plus other events. That same year the memorial also opened Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center, named after the retired U.S. Navy Commander Paul Galanti, a Richmonder who was a prisoner of war from 1966 to 1973, and his late wife, Phyllis Eason Galanti, who never ceased in her efforts to bring him and other POW’s home. The center includes classrooms, a theater, and space for exhibits. The memorial’s five acres of green space has also grown with the planting of 87 trees, 375 shrubs, 553 perennials and hundreds of groundcover specimens that earned the Common Wealth Award by the Garden Club of Virginia.

Clay Mountcastle, memorial’s director, told Richmond Magazine, “One of the best ideas Virginia ever had was to add a museum and education center to make it a living memorial.”

In early 2020, the memorial added the C. Kenneth Wright Pavilion, which includes a new Shrine of Memory listing the names of 175 Virginians who have died in the global war on terrorism on the outside and the inside space includes a lecture hall, a Medal of Honor Gallery and the Veterans’ Changing Art Gallery, which showcases the art from Virginia veterans.

Those additions have expanded the memorial’s education efforts. There are more than two dozen Virginians at War”documentary films and more than 1,300 hours of recordings. Two new documentaries include “One Week in October,” that looks at the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut and the U.S. invasion of Grenada.

A recent 25 minute film entitled “50 Years Beyond: The Vietnam Veteran Experience”accompanied a recent exhibit and featured stories of 50 Vietnam veterans from across Virginia and video excerpts of each veteran telling their story. Part of that film and exhibit will be featured at the Pentagon later this year (and you can still view at the memorial and online).

Two new documentaries include “One Week in October,” that looks at the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut and the U.S. invasion of Grenada.

Next week, on D-Day (June 6th), the new exhibit “D+80: Virginians in the Normandy Invasion,” will mark the 80th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. You may know that the official D-Day Memorial was located in Bedford County, Virginia to honor the men of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division. Bedford has the somber distinction of suffering the country’s highest known per capita loss on D-Day.

31 of the 37 Bedford men assigned to Company A were in the first wave at Omaha Beach. Of the 26 men who reached the beach, 16 were killed and four wounded in the opening minutes and three were unaccounted for and presumed killed in action. Another Bedford soldier was killed in action elsewhere on Omaha Beach with another company that morning.

The “D+80” exhibit will include historic photographs, artifacts, uniforms and weaponry and, most notably, incorporate previously unseen footage of eyewitness accounts provided to the Virginia War Memorial by World War II veterans more than 20 years ago.

“With this exhibition, we hope visitors can connect with these emotional stories that truly capture how soldiers were feeling before, during and after the landing. Imagine the power of hearing about the invasion in the words, and the voices, of those who were there,” Mountcastle says.

Virginia’s memorial and education center is one of a kind in the nation.

“Some have monuments, and some have museums, but none have the active programming we have or the education and outreach that we do,” Mountcastle says. “When people arrive here, they are surprised to see what we have to offer. There’s so much to see and do.”

Republished with permission from RVA 5×5.

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