By John Kanelis
Bruce Das lays it on the line.
"We've done a terrible job educating our young people about these conflicts," he said.
So, what is the Amarillo resident planning to do to improve students' understanding of the conflicts that have helped build this nation? He has joined with several other residents with a keen interest in telling their nation's history to raise money that will pay for construction of a magnificent education center at the site of the Texas Panhandle War Memorial.
It's far more than a museum, Das said. Its purpose is to educate young people, to be a place where parents and teachers can tell the story of the struggles that have cost the country much blood and treasure.
Das, along with Rex and Mary Nell Lemert and Fred Rangel, all of Amarillo, is heading up the fundraising effort to build the education center. It will comprise more than 12,500 square feet, covering a ground floor and a mezzanine.
Das is a U.S. Air Force veteran, serving from 1957 to 1961. Lemert's military experience was a U.S. Army intelligence and infantry officer that included a tour in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. Former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Rangel – one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Texas Panhandle War Memorial – also saw combat in Vietnam.
Das said the project is estimated to cost around $8.5 million. He added that the effort already has drawn pledges from some "wealthy donors" who want to remain anonymous. The effort to raise the rest of the money, though, has commenced.
Lemert said the first floor of the exhibit is going to cover "240 years of our nation's history. The kiosks on the ground floor will be highly interactive." They will feature animation and images depicting the men and women who participated in each of the wars that have occurred dating back to the American Revolution. The depictions will be speak to those who activate the kiosks and will tell the stories of the individual conflicts.
Every significant conflict's story will be told at the Education Center, according to Das and Lemert. The wars covered, in chronological order, will be: the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War.
The mezzanine will be dedicated to the Texas Panhandle's direct involvement in those wars, Lemert said.
The men also noted that four men who received the Medal Honor will be profiled at the Education Center. They are: Billy Dixon, who was killed in action in the Civil War; Red Morgan, who died in World War I; Charles Roan, who was killed in World War II; and Thomas Creek, who was killed in Vietnam. Plans call for statues depicting the men to be erected at the site, according to Lemert.
Sally Thornberry – whose husband, Mac, chairs the U.S. House Armed Services Committee – noted in a video promoting the Education Center that some Americans have forgotten how we should define the term "real heroes." She said heroes are those who put their lives on the line in defense of the country and those are the people, she said, the Education Center seeks to honor.
Das has intense and intimate personal experience relating to the human cost of war and the searing emotional pain it can bring.
Das's son, Eric – a captain in the U.S. Air Force who piloted F-15 Eagle fighter jets – died when his plane was shot down during the early stages of the Iraq War in March 2003. "As a Gold Star family," Das said, "we wanted to become involved with this project."
Das recalled receiving the terrible news about Eric's death "right after the Rick Husband disaster," referring to the space shuttle Columbia's disintegration upon re-entry from space in February 2003, which killed Husband – the mission commander and Amarillo native – and his six crew members.
"The city honored Eric by having an 'Eric Das Day,'" Das recalled. "But in reality we haven't done a good job" of telling the story of these conflicts' significance, he said.
The addition to the complex at South Georgia Street and the Canyon E-Way – next to the Randall County Courthouse Annex – is part of an overall effort to enhance the tributes to Panhandle servicemen and women.
Randall County Judge Ernie Houdashell – a Vietnam War veteran – already has negotiated the delivery of an F-100 Super Sabre fighter jet that now sits on a corner of the war memorial grounds. He's planning soon to receive a Vietnam War-era Huey helicopter that he plans to renovate for display on the grounds alongside the Education Center.
"This is going to be a marvelous teaching tool," Das said. "Teachers will be able to develop lesson plans" based on the displays at the Education Center, he said.
Clayton Hoffman, a retired Army colonel, said the center can become a "healing place" for those who visit it.
Mary Nell Lemert described the proposed exhibit as the "only education center of this type anywhere in Texas."
Amarillo Mayor Paul Harpole – who, like Houdashell, served on a helicopter crew during the Vietnam War – said in a video that the group has put together that "it's critical that we understand history" and that "we don't make the same mistakes" regarding war.
Das also noted, "We need to bring kids to this memorial and educate them on the meaning of war."