USA’s ‘front yard’ is veteran’s latest battleground (USA Today)

By Guillermo X. Garcia, USA Today

As a skinny and scared 23-year-old draftee off a Missouri farm, John Graves found himself fighting in some of the most pitched European battles of World War II. The feisty corporal, now 80 years old, won a Bronze Star for valor in battles against Nazis across Central Europe. He was in combat in southern France, at the Battle of the Bulge and later at the fortified Siegfried Line as the Allies converged on Germany’s western border. Now he’s in another battle.

This time, his fight is with ”brass and bureaucrats,” former senator Bob Dole, movie star Tom Hanks and tens of thousands of Graves’ fellow veterans.

The latest battle centers on where and how the nation should honor the 16 million soldiers and civilians who fought and died in ”the last great war.”

Currently, plans call for a 7.5-acre World War II memorial complete with bronze sculptures and fountains; 17-foot pillars that sit on top of a 6-foot-tall retaining wall surrounding a 400-foot-wide sunken plaza; and soaring 41-foot arches at the memorial’s north and south ends. The sunken plaza memorial will be on what is now open land on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

Whether testifying to Congress or various commissions, Graves is critical of those who favor the memorial because it would take up ”so much beautiful open space at our nation’s front yard,” as he calls the Mall.

The memorial’s design has gone through several changes since Congress approved legislation authorizing the $140 million memorial in 1988. Then, in 1998, the memorial’s planned location moved about 120 yards from its original spot in Constitution Gardens to the Rainbow Pool, a fountain close to the Reflecting Pool.

The architect, Friedrich St. Florian, says that the actual memorial will cover only 2.5 acres and that the remainder is landscaping.

Construction, which would replace the Rainbow Pool with a larger fountain, is tentatively set to begin in February.

It will take up to 21Ž2 years to complete, according to Mike Conley, spokesman for the American Battle Monuments Commission, the memorial’s sponsor.

He says $125 million of the estimated $140 million cost comes from outside government. Donations large and small have come from corporations, foundations, and civic and fraternal groups such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Schoolchildren from 1,100 schools across the USA have donated $500,000 in quarters and dollars.

The biggest single source of funds has come from a campaign launched by Dole, himself a veteran, and Hanks, the star of Saving Private Ryan, a movie about World War II. Proponents say the memorial’s massive design is necessary to honor the event that historians consider the defining moment of the 20th century.

The design’s opponents say the proposed memorial, which some have likened to a ”marbled Stonehenge,” will consume too much open space and block the unobstructed view that now stretches across the Mall from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. ”I dispute that there will be any obstructed views. It is designed to be very transparent, and it will be,” St. Florian says.

Graves and others, under the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, filed a federal lawsuit in early October against the various commissions and the Interior Department. They want to scale down the memorial and change the site back to its original location.

The government’s response to the suit is to be filed in early December, almost one month after the Veterans Day groundbreaking ceremony on Nov. 11 that is expected to draw President Clinton, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and tens of thousands of people from around the country.

Though the lawsuit is not expected to affect the groundbreaking, it is not clear that construction could begin as scheduled early next year unless the suit is settled or dismissed. Officials with the battle monuments group and the National Capital Planning Commission, two of the government agencies being sued, say they are confident that the courts will not force a change in plans.

”The suit is not justified, and its filing smacks of desperation tactics by a very small group,” says Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who sponsored the memorial’s legislation in the late 1980s. ”Planning and hearings have taken 12 years, almost three times longer than it took to fight the war.”

Kaptur says that locating the memorial, ”the single symbol of victory over tyranny in the 20th century, between the Washington Monument, honoring the founder of our democracy, and the memorial to (Lincoln), who preserved the Union, is most appropriate.” Which is exactly why the proposed memorial’s location is inappropriate, contends Judy Scott Feldman, an art and architectural historian who co-founded the coalition that filed the lawsuit.

”This is not about honoring veterans; this is about ruining the nation’s most important gathering spot by putting up a monstrosity that will block the unimpeded walkway and the open vista that now exists” on the Mall, says Feldman, who teaches a course at American University in Washington on architecture in the nation’s capital. Kaptur says she wonders whether the groups filing suit ”really understand what it is they want to preserve. That area of the Mall is seedy, the grass is not cared for, the trees are scraggly, and the concrete is broken up and in disrepair.” She says some of the $140 million will be dedicated to cleaning up and maintaining that part of the Mall.

However, World War II veteran Graves is not convinced. ”I fought in that war, I buried friends in that war, and we never asked for anything,” Graves says. ”The thanks of a grateful nation is all we wanted. We don’t need some fiasco gouging out the heart of the Mall.”