An American flag wedged into a seam in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Thirty years after his fostering of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Jan C. Scruggs on Wednesday hosted the ceremonial groundbreaking of another tribute to the nation’s service men and women: the Education Center at the Wall.

The center — 12 years in the making — is to be located just northeast of the Lincoln Memorial, across Henry Bacon Drive from the Wall. It is designed to tell the story of the Vietnam War and honor veterans of all the nation’s conflicts.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta,members of Congress, present and former top military officials, Jill Biden and veterans and their families attended the groundbreaking. Panetta, the ceremony’s keynote speaker, said the education center would be “a new national landmark.”

One speaker, Vietnam veteran Michael McClung — whose daughter, Marine Corps Maj. Megan McClung, was killed in Iraq — choked up and said: “We have a legacy of service, and we only ask that you remember us.”

The 35,000-square-foot underground center’s primary focus will be on the war in Vietnam. Huge photographs of faces of the 58,000 men and women who died in the war and whose names now appear on the Wall will be displayed.

The center also will showcase, among other things, 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 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 memorial for the war on terror. . . . 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.”

Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, was a young, impassioned ex-grunt who had been wounded in Vietnam when he got the Wall built in the early 1980s for $8.4 million.

Now he takes another step with the center, which is expected to cost about $85 million. Scruggs said he has raised about $48 million. He said that construction could begin as early as next summer and that the center could be completed by 2014.

“What we’re doing here is elevating the idea of service to our country, making it something big, something to be proud of,” he said.

The ceremony ended with entertainer Jimmy Buffett singing “God Bless America” with everybody joining in.