Va War Memorial's Hatfield works to honor vets

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Virginia War Memorial embodies the poignant and powerful legacy of Virginians killed in combat in World War II and the nation's wars since then.

Engraved on stone and glass walls at the memorial's Shrine of Memory are nearly 12,000 names of the state's service members who died in hostile action during World War II and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars.

The statue of Memory, surrounded by a reflecting pool, stands majestically in the shrine. At its feet burns the Torch of Liberty's eternal flame.

But by 1992, the glass wall with the names of Virginia's fallen in the Shrine of Memory was close to collapsing, the Torch of Liberty was out, the reflecting pool couldn't hold water, and stones on the building and sidewalks were coming loose.

"The memorial had fallen into a pretty sad state of disrepair," said Dale Chapman, adjutant of the state American Legion, Virginia's largest veterans organization.

Then a reorganized Virginia War Memorial board of trustees hired Jon Hatfield, a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, as its first executive director.

"He stopped it from crumbling, from falling apart," said Paul Galanti, the state's commissioner of veterans services. "It shines like a jewel from the Orient now."

Since Hatfield became the Virginia War Memorial's executive director in 1997:

—The memorial has been completely renovated.

—Its visitorship has increased during the past decade from 9,200 to nearly 50,000 this year, with a goal of 100,000 visitors five years from now.

—The $10.5 million Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center opened.

—Planning has begun for an $8.6 million combined office, exhibit, education and parking building, with construction to get under way next year.

—The War Memorial will add a shrine to honor the Virginians killed in the global war on terror.

"If (Hatfield) hadn't sold the idea to the people that could make it happen, then none of it would have happened," said Chapman, who also is a member of the Virginia War Memorial board.

"He was the primary driving force."

Hatfield, 66, consistently deflects attention from himself and directs it to others — the governors, state legislators, memorial board members, the volunteers and veterans who have had a hand in the institution's growth and improvement.

"I have had the very great honor of being the director of the memorial during a time of growth," he said, but, "It is not me — many hands (are) on the same rope."

Del. John M. O'Bannon III, R-Henrico, chairman of the memorial's board, said, "He is the ultimate Army guy. He has a boss and a mission, and if it's bad, he'll be out front, and if it's good, he wants somebody else to get the credit."

From its enviable site overlooking the James River in downtown Richmond, the War Memorial has become a dynamic educational organization as well as the keeper of the state's military heritage of service and sacrifice.

"The best way to honor the men and women that are listed on our shrine is that we pass the stories of their sacrifice forward," Hatfield said.

As the institution puts it: "Honoring our veterans, preserving our history, educating our youth, inspiring patriotism in all."

Today, the Old Dominion is home to more than 822,000 military veterans — they make up more than 10 percent of the state's population — and an additional 88,000 serving members of the active-duty and reserve armed forces.

With a budget of about $800,000 a year, the memorial itself has four full-time and two part-time employees, while the privately funded Virginia War Memorial Educational Foundation has two others.

About 60 volunteers — many of whom are veterans — help support the memorial's operations and programs.

"One of our volunteers is 92 years old. He was part of the war in Europe," Hatfield said. "He was a tail gunner on his B-24 (bomber) when it was shot down. His back was broken, and he spent a year in a POW camp. He volunteers with us every week now."

Another volunteer fought in besieged Bastogne, Belgium, during World War II's Battle of the Bulge, Hatfield said. That battle was the greatest in American military history in its scale and its losses.

"The best part of working here," Hatfield said, "is the great number of heroes I've gotten to meet and rub elbows with, to spend time with men and women who defended our country, Medal of Honor recipients, people I would never have had the honor to meet without being here."

Early in Hatfield's stewardship, the War Memorial hired an education director — a history teacher — to forward its educational mission.

Among its programs are daylong history seminars for high school students and teachers, special Junior ROTC recognition days, Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs, and summer history teacher institutes.

The War Memorial also has produced the award-winning "Virginians at War" oral history documentaries. In the series of 16 films, Virginia veterans share the stories of their real-life wartime experiences.

The memorial has distributed the films to middle and high schools, and to colleges, across the state. The War Memorial's program curricula are designed to support the Virginia Standards of Learning.

The memorial has an extensive collection of uniforms and small arms. But "we've been fairly careful about what we've accepted. We are looking for things you will not see at any other venue," Hatfield said.

And Hatfield seizes opportunities to teach visitors about what it means to serve in the nation's military. For instance, on the wall behind one water cooler is a short history of the canteen. Each sign marking an office features a different U.S. military medal with its significance.

"If you're teaching," Hatfield said, "teach everywhere."

Hatfield wants to make the Virginia War Memorial the premier veterans memorial in the country. "Most memorials are just that," he said, "memorials."

On its 4.3-acre site, the institution hosts more than 30 major events annually.

Its Memorial Day commemoration has grown from attracting 200 to 300 people to drawing in 2,500 participants, and this month's Veterans Day observance brought in about 1,000 people to honor men and women in service to the nation.

"Every single event he does there is oversubscribed," Galanti said. "If the police enforced it, there'd be a thousand parking tickets given out."

The memorial also is used by active-duty military personnel for events, such as homecomings, re-enlistments and promotions.

"He's capitalized on a terrific location," said Jack Berry, president and CEO of the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"He's complemented that with what he's done," Berry said of Hatfield's work at the War Memorial.

With more than 21,000 people from 45 states and 21 countries visiting the War Memorial in 2008, the facilities were overstretched. Some groups had to be turned away because the memorial's small auditorium could not support multiple groups for educational events and meetings.

To meet the increasing demand, the memorial began an effort to build its 18,000-square foot education center, named for retired Navy Cmdr. Paul Galanti, who was shot down during the Vietnam War and spent 6½ years as a prisoner of war, and his wife, Phyllis, who as chairwoman of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, worked for the release of the war's American POWs.

In 1997, the memorial board hired Hatfield as the executive director — and first employee — of the Virginia War Memorial: "There wasn't much to direct when I came here."

"I knew the board," Hatfield said. "I knew what they wanted, and I thought I could do it."

Authorized in 1950 and dedicated in 1956, the War Memorial was opened as a static display, without staff or programs, to honor the men and women who had died in the country's service in World War II and the Korean War.

"You didn't have to explain sacrifice or service to people," Hatfield said. "They all understood. In World War II, every citizen was involved in the war effort."

Today, however, only a small percentage of Americans have direct connections to the military that defends the nation.

Military service runs in Hatfield's blood. Members of his family have served in the U.S. military since the American Revolution.

And, as a footnote, Hatfield is one of the Hatfields of the legendary 19th-century Hatfield-McCoy feud.

His father was an administrator for the hospital system with what now is called the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Hatfields moved every two or three years in his youth, living in West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, where he graduated from high school.

Hatfield attended the College of William and Mary for two years. Then, in 1966, with college losing its savor, he joined the Army, training as a radio operator for the Army Security Agency — "the spooks," he says — and serving in Alaska and Germany.

In 1968, thinking that "I could do better for the Army and for myself as an officer," Hatfield volunteered for Officer Candidate School.

"I was somewhat taken by the ad campaign the Army had at that time: 'Why wait till you're 50 to run your own company,'?" he said.

He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry at a time when second lieutenants were getting killed left and right in the Vietnam War.

"When you're that age, you're 10 feet tall and bulletproof," he said. "When you're young, you don't look at the possibility of dying."

But the needs of the Army sent him to Fort Polk, La., where he led a training company. He went on to serve in Korea and then came to Fort Lee, where he commanded a unit with 600 soldiers. "The best job the Army has is company commander," Hatfield said.

His erect posture, his commanding voice and his unfailing use of "sir" and "ma'am" in conversation are emblematic of the military's mark on Hatfield's character.

He left active duty in 1971 but remained in the Army Reserve, retiring in 1989 as a lieutenant colonel.

"You know what Friday means at the War Memorial?" Hatfield asked jokingly. "Only two more days to work."

Besides his day-to-day duties, Hatfield speaks across the state 50 to 60 times a year to high school assemblies, veterans groups, conventions, conferences and civic organization meetings, driving more than 200,000 miles during the past 15 years to get to them.

Hatfield said the agency tries not to turn down any request to talk for the War Memorial, though his rule for speeches is, "Stop talking before your audience stops listening."

Those engagements are opportunities for the memorial's executive director, who is an unabashed fundraiser. "I have passed the helmet liner at certain events, collecting money for our programs," he said.

"I cannot think of anyone who devoted as many weekends and nights to veterans events all over the state," O'Bannon said. "He's generated a tremendous network of people and links them to the memorial."

"When he breathes, the memorial breathes with him," said John V. Cogbill III, chairman of the Virginia War Memorial Educational Foundation and a lawyer at McGuireWoods.

"He is Mr. War Memorial," Galanti said. "You can't think of the War Memorial without him being there."

And "if he retires," Galanti said, "he'll be coming back."


Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch,

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