In an effort to save a long-promised memorial for Korean War veterans, Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) has successfully shepherded legislation through Congress that would raise $7 million by minting a silver dollar coin commemorating the war. Unless the money is raised by July, Parris told the House last week, legislation for the memorial would expire.
Parris, one of 46 Korean War veterans in Congress, is the House sponsor of a bill that would enable the U.S. Mint to issue a million of the coins early next year. Although they would be legal coins with a face value of $1, they are expected to be sold for about $30 each -- representing the Mint's costs plus a $7 surcharge.
If all the coins are sold, the project would raise $7 million for the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board and clear the way for construction to begin next year. Federal officials have already approved plans to locate a memorial on the Mall east of the Lincoln Memorial.
The legislation authorizing the coin has been approved overwhelmingly by both the House and Senate and is awaiting the approval of President Bush, who is expected to sign it. "We're confident that every coin will be sold in short order and that this will be successful," said Mark Robertson, Parris's legislative director.
Coin collectors and some government officials have been skeptical of such claims, and many have been critical of Parris's proposal.
"The Korean War coin is a perfect example of a coin that has no reason to exist," said David L. Ganz, a respected New York City lawyer and a director of the American Numismatic Association. Citing the proliferation of commemorative coin proposals and the difficulty the U.S. Mint has had selling such coins, the critics have questioned whether all of the Korean War silver dollars would sell.
Rep. Richard H. Lehman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House subcommittee on consumer affairs and coinage, and Mint Director Donna Pope each have expressed reservations about the coin's sales potential. Both have said they are fearful that well-intentioned legislation, such as Parris's bill, will transform the Mint's commemorative coin program into a fund-raising device that many other charities will demand access to.
In the end, however, Lehman cited the number of co-sponsors Parris had secured for his bill and told the House that he supported it. He expressed hope that enough veterans will purchase the coins to make the memorial a success.
Robertson said Parris has supported construction of a Korea veterans memorial to raise public awareness of what has been called "the forgotten war." Parris has said he knows firsthand how the name came to be.
Parris, a fighter pilot, flew a number of combat missions over North Korea and was shot down once. He was unable to parachute out of his plane when it was hit, he said, and would have been killed if the aircraft had not fallen into some power lines, cushioning the impact of the crash.
"But when I came home, it was like I had never left," Parris has said. "I would bump into people and they would ask, 'Where have you been?' The public wasn't aware of what was going on. They were just going on with their lives."
Planning for the memorial has been underway since 1986, when Congress first authorized the project and appropriated $1 million to begin the task. According to Robert Hansen, executive director of the memorial advisory board, the project will cost about $11 million. About $6 million has been raised.
Hansen said that the group wants to raise $7 million more through the commemorative coin because it wants to pay back the $1 million set aside by Congress and it needs a trust of $1 million to ensure perpetual maintenance of the memorial.
The advisory commission approved a design for the memorial last year. It is to include 38 statues of infantrymen marching to battle, with each statue about seven feet high. The statues would be placed in a grove of trees near the Lincoln Memorial and would lead toward a seven-foot-high wall with relief sculptures portraying the war's history. The number 38 was chosen because the war was fought around the geographic boundary known as the 38th Parallel and lasted 38 months.
Hansen said the advisory committee hopes to break ground for the memorial on Veterans Day next year and to dedicate it on the 40th anniversary of the Korean peace treaty, July 27, 1993.
But under the law, construction on the memorial cannot begin until all the money for it has been collected. That will require selling all 1 million of the coins quickly.
"We believe we'll be able to get 90 percent of the buyers in 60 days," Hansen said. "There are 5 million living veterans of the Korean War, and we will be marketing the coin through veterans organizations. There are the members of the Korean American community. And there are coin collectors."