Vietnam vets still pushing fire base

After a Flag Day speech at Heritage Plaza Friday in which he spoke of the stars and stripes flying in jungle bases in Vietnam, despite being a target of enemy gunners, George Montgomery talked about his own cause – whose banner still flies after 20 years.

His cause is Fire Base Eagle, a proposed Vietnam War history center in this area, an idea he broached publicly 20 years ago.

Since then, the project has identified a site for the project twice and has been close to a financial breakthrough a couple of times, according to Montgomery and fellow organization member and Vietnam vet Paul Johnson.

But the venue possibilities have folded, the breakthrough hasn’t happened and the group’s funds have shrunk far below critical mass – even as it has scaled back from a $35 million project to a phased one totaling $10 million.

Still, they’re not surrendering, according to Montgomery and Johnson.

“You’re taught when you’re young to never give up,” Montgomery said.

“Til I die,” Johnson said.

The close calls included opportunities they believed were afforded them at the time when a nationally acclaimed Vietnam War photo exhibit stopped for a time at the Heritage Discovery Center in downtown Altoona.

But the attacks of 9/11 undid the focus required for those opportunities to blossom.

Another time, Fire Base Eagle leaders had an attentive audience in the offices of a major Pittsburgh company.

“[But] we weren’t ready” – lacking at the time a business plan, Montgomery said. The company’s officials in charge of charitable efforts have since moved on.

The group also at one time had a commitment from the city for land at Westfall Park. But observers convinced group leaders that the site had visibility and access problems, and the attitude at City Hall eventually shifted – a shift felt most chillingly when the leaders heard they needed to raise a threshold amount to retain the commitment on the land, according to Montgomery.

Later, the group believed it had a good shot at obtaining a donation of 55 acres of state land – including a prominent hilltop behind the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home.

There was support from lawmakers, and it might have come to fruition during the Ed Rendell administration, according to Montgomery.

But the Corbett administration came into power, and the Department of General Services put a price on the ground, and that scotched the deal, they said.

Since 1999, the group has raised about $160,000, according to Montgomery.

Much of that has gone toward the Vietnam War Memorial replica wall at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center, the photo exhibit and a business plan, he said.

Fundraising has become increasingly difficult.

“A lot are digging into the same pie,” he said.

For 2011, the group’s total revenue was $170; its total expenses were $1,255, for an annual deficit of $1,085 – and negative net assets of $1,346, according to that year’s income tax filing with the IRS.

The group currently has only “operations” money and is looking again for a site, Montgomery said.

It’s shifted its immediate focus toward remembrance of the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary and formation of traveling exhibits, Montgomery said.

The group has had offers to site the museum outside the area but declined because it felt a responsibility to make it work in Blair County, Montgomery said.

“We still think it’s still a viable project,” Montgomery said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.