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thedrifter
04-22-06, 09:28 AM
PBer honors disabled vets with $1M gift
By MICHELE DARGAN, Daily News Staff Writer
Saturday, April 22, 2006

Leo Albert spent four years in the U.S. Marines during World War II and was in one of the first units to land in Nagasaki after the United States dropped the atomic bomb.

"It's an experience that you never forget," Albert said. "Where the atomic bomb landed, there was just ashes, like nothing was ever there."

Albert came home from the war unscathed, but he still thinks of those who weren't as lucky — those who died or were maimed.

Albert, of Palm Beach, has donated $1 million to the Disabled Veterans LIFE Memorial Foundation, an organization dedicated to building a national memorial in Washington, D.C., to honor the 3 million disabled American veterans throughout history.

"Thank God I came back whole, and I count my blessings," Albert said. "I feel for those people maimed in defense of our country. Those who died, in a sense, are at peace. Those who were maimed may live 10, 20, 30 years without their arms, legs or eyes, and they deserve to be remembered for giving so much of their lives to our country."

Lois Pope, chairwoman and co-founder of the foundation, has agreed to match Albert's donation. She has already donated $3 million and has pledged up to $5 million in additional matching challenge grants — like that of Albert's donation.

"I was stunned and very grateful," Pope said. "It was the first time in my life that I was absolutely speechless. Leo Albert said he will take a leadership role in raising money in Palm Beach. As an ex-Marine, he knows what war is about."

The foundation is in the midst of a $65 million campaign to raise money to build the memorial; $20 million has already been donated. Pope said the target date for completion is within the next five years.

A former Broadway actress, Pope's inspiration for this memorial dates to the 1970s when she performed for injured veterans at the Rusk Rehabilitation Center in New York.

"I chose the song Somewhere from West Side Story and one of the lyrics goes, 'Hold my hand and I'll take you there,' " Pope said. "I looked down and one of the men had no hands, but he smiled and it changed my life.

"I had $1.37 to my name when I saw that and couldn't do anything about it," she said. "All through the years, I never forgot it and finally I had the money to do something about it."

Pope said she started the process about nine years ago, but she had no idea of the magnitude of the project she was undertaking. Pope's donations include $1 million dedicated to the memory of Jesse Brown, the former Secretary of Veterans Affairs, for his help in the process.

"I called Jesse Brown every day for six months," Pope said. "I explained about the memorial and left messages. I got to know all the secretaries. They shielded him well. Finally, after six months, I got through. I said, 'Mr. Secretary, how come there's not a memorial for disabled veterans? Will you help me?' Without hesitation, he said yes.

"I hope that when people walk through our memorial they will have the respect for the sacrifices the disabled veterans made for our freedom," Pope said. "Freedom isn't free. There's a human cost of war."

There will be a gala to benefit the memorial Tuesday at the Pierre Hotel in New York City and another benefit Nov. 25 at The Breakers.

President Bill Clinton signed legislation in 2000 authorizing the establishment of the memorial. The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial is expected to open within the next five years on a 2-acre site near the National Mall, just steps from the Capitol.

"It will remind Congress that before they declare war they should think of the consequences," Albert said.

"It will remind them of the people who lost legs, arms or eyes."

Ellie