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Va War Memorial's Hatfield works to honor vets

Friday - 11/23/2012, 7:09am  ET

Richmond Times-Dispatch

RICHMOND, Va. - 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."

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