At the service on the Mall, Molly Morel, left, of Martin, Tenn., and Emogene Cupp of Alexandria hold photos of their sons, killed during wartime. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

As the VIPs arrived for Wednesday’s ceremonial groundbreaking, Jan C. Scruggs, the man behind the Vietnam War education center, stood on the sidewalk looking for a particular guest.

Retired military officers, members of Congress and Obama administration officials were all due. But when a certain black SUV pulled up, Scruggs pumped his fist.

The door opened, and out stepped a balding man with a guitar over his shoulder. “Good to see you,” he told Scruggs. It was singer Jimmy Buffett, and his appearance at the site of the center capped a morning of tributes and helped close the ceremony with a heartfelt singalong of “God Bless America.”

Thirty years after fostering the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Scruggs assembled an array of supporters to help take another step in his 12-year effort to build the Education Center at the Wall.

The 35,000-square-foot underground center, to be located on the Mall just northeast of the Lincoln Memorial and across Henry Bacon Drive from the Vietnam Wall, is designed to tell the story of the war and honor veterans of all the nation’s conflicts.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta spoke at the ceremony, as did members of Congress, former top military officials, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Vice President Biden’s wife, Jill.

Also present were numerous Gold Star relatives — parents, wives, siblings of servicemen and women who were killed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many were wearing white and were holding portraits of their loved ones.

Vietnam veteran Michael McClung — whose daughter, Marine Corps Maj. Megan McClung, was killed in Iraq — spoke for all of them. He choked up as he said, “We have a legacy of service, and we only ask that you remember us.”

Panetta predicted that the education center would become “a new national landmark.”

Inside the center, large photographs of the faces of the 58,000 men and women who died in the war and whose names are on the Wall will be displayed. It also will showcase a large selection of some of the 200,000 mementos that have been left at the Wall in the past 30 years.

“It’s not just another interesting little museum,” Scruggs said Tuesday. The center will be “an amazing place where you can connect with the nation’s past. And we think you can connect here with the nation’s future.”

He said the center will also serve as a tribute to those who served and died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s our job to welcome these people home,” he said. “This will be the temporary memorial. They’ll get their own one day. But once this is built, this will be their place of pilgrimage.”

Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Candy Martin attended the ceremony Wednesday, holding a portrait of her son, Army Lt. Thomas Michael Martin, 27, who was killed in Iraq in 2007.

“This is phenomenal,” she said. “To think that the Vietnam memorial foundation would look out for remembering the fallen from all the wars, all the conflicts, speaks volumes. They’re the selfless ones.”

Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, was an impassioned young veteran who had been wounded in Vietnam when he got the Wall built in the early 1980s at a cost of $8.4 million.

The education center is expected to cost about $85 million. Scruggs said he has raised about $48 million through the memorial fund. He said that once the remaining money is raised, construction could begin next summer and be completed by 2014.

Buffett, who noted that Scruggs urged him to play Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” said: “I’m just honored to be here. As a war baby teenager in 1960, [the war] affected all of our lives in one way or another.

“As lucky as I’ve been all these years to come through Washington and play, I’ve always gone by” the Wall, he said. “It’s a haunted place, and I think to have an education center to teach lessons is great . . . maybe teach a few lessons for generations to come.”

After the speeches and the dignitaries’ ceremonial turning of shovelfuls of dirt, some of the attendees walked across the street to the Wall, the black granite warming in the morning sun.

One of them was Michael Johnson, 63, a Vietnam veteran and retired firefighter captain from Frisco, Tex. Johnson carefully searched the names on the Wall, taking pictures of a few.

They were his six classmates from R.L. Turner High School, in Carrollton, Tex.

“We all went to Vietnam, and I was the only one who came home,” he said. He visits the Wall as often as he can.

“These six guys here, I’m the only thing they’ve got left,” he said. “A lot of their parents are gone now.”

“It’s one of those things,” he said “It’s so random that all of them didn’t make it back and I did. It’s been a burden. It’s hard to explain.”