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FORT LEE (Feb. 18, 2016) -- The Virginia War Memorial has carried forward the stories of thousands of fallen military heroes for the past six decades.

In recognition of the memorial’s diamond anniversary, a ceremony is set for Feb. 29, 5 p.m., at its downtown Richmond site situated on 4 acres along the James River at 621 South Belvidere St.

“It’s been a real honor for me to be here and be a part of the large transformation of the memorial,” said Jon Hatfield, executive director of the VWM who also was its first employee in 1997. “The Commonwealth has a grand military heritage that is unmatched by any other state in the nation. Our country started here. Major battles of the Revolutionary War were fought here. We have had major battles of the Civil War fought here. Most recently, we have had Virginians die on Virginia soil as part of the war of terror when the Pentagon was attacked.”

Hatfield said, “As we prepare to commemorate our anniversary, it’s also gratifying to see our visitation numbers continue to grow. We experienced a 4.25 percent increase in the number of guests over 2014, and by far the largest number of visitors in the memorial’s history.”

More than 71,000 persons passed through the site last year. This compares to less than 10,000 visitors a dozen years ago.

Since its dedication in 1956, the VWM has become more than a stone monument. It has successfully followed its mission to “Honor Veterans, Preserve History, Educate Youth and Instill Patriotism in All.”

On Feb. 29, 1956, hundreds gathered on-site for the Commonwealth’s tribute to the over 9,000 Virginian servicemen and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice during World War II and the Korean War. Since then, the landmark has added the names of Virginians who died while serving in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and the ongoing Global War on Terrorism. The honor roll now totals nearly 12,000.

During the upcoming ceremony, the guest speaker will be William J. Howell, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. Other special guests are expected.

The event will include a tribute to Frank D. Hargrove, who served over 28 years in the Virginia House of Delegates representing Hanover County and 13 years as chair of the memorial’s Board of Trustees. The memorial’s Grand Plaza will be officially named in honor of Hargrove.

“I am proud of what we have accomplished at the memorial. We conduct over 50 educational programs a year to help pass forward to future generations the stories of our heroes,” said Hatfield. “These are statewide programs for our schools, teachers, Boy and Girl Scouts, Junior ROTC and ROTC Units and other groups around the state.”

The VWM also does patriotic programs every month. “We want our citizens and future leaders to understand the reason we have the country we have is because of the past heroes,” he noted.

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

“The names inscribed on the stone walls of the memorial are sons, fathers, daughters, mothers, friends and battle buddies,” he said. “They are fallen comrades and persons of honor. And they are heroes – every last one of them.”

During the past 18 years, several educational programs, including the award-winning “Virginians at War” documentary videos for the classroom have been developed to honor veterans and instill patriotism. To accommodate education program growth, the memorial completed the 18,400-square foot Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center in September 2010. The VWM is preparing to build a $23 million expansion or Phase II of its master plan. It will expand the Shrine of Memory to house the Global War on Terrorism Memorial increase parking in a deck, and enlarge exhibit and education spaces. Construction will begin in the summer and the opening of the new wing is expected in late 2017.

“We have outgrown our current space to fully present our programs, exhibits and special programs,” he said. “We will have another 20,000- feet in program space. All programs will continue during construction and alternate parking will be available.

A Virginia National Guard Museum is in the planning stages, he said.

The memorial offers an array of historic and military exhibits for visitors. These include two special exhibits – the Pearl Harbor exhibit and the West Wall of the Pentagon display.

“There is only one piece of the USS Arizona on display in Virginia. It’s here. And there are only a few pieces of the Pentagon wall not at the Pentagon and one of them is here,” said Hatfield.

“You teach through unique things, not through things you see every place you go,” he said. 

Upcoming Events at the VWM

• March 12, 10 a.m., 3rd Annual K-9 Veterans Day Ceremony.

• March 15, 5:30 p.m., “Field of Lost Shoes: The Story Behind The Film.” Featured speaker is Tom Farrell II. $50 per person to benefit VWM Foundation.

• April 23, 8 a.m., 5th Annual Virginia War Memorial 5K Run-Walk To Remember.

• May 30, 10 a.m., Commonwealth Memorial Day Ceremony.

For more information on other upcoming events or general information, call (804) 786.2060 or visit www.varwarmemorial.org or Facebook/virginiawarmemorial.

The Galanti Education Center is open for tours Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., and Sunday, noon - 4 p.m.

The Shrine of Memory and Grounds are open daily from 5:30 a.m. - midnight. Admission and parking to the VWM are free unless noted.