Navy veteran Paul Watters stood near an HU-1 helicopter Friday on display in the Vietnam exhibit at Patriots Point.

S.C. veterans

There are 396,873 veterans in South Carolina; a third served in the Vietnam War era. Roughly the same ratio holds true for the tri-county area:

Charleston: 31,555 total veterans (38% Vietnam)

Berkeley: 20,655 total veterans (37% Vietnam)

Dorchester: 14,345 total veterans (33% Vietnam)

Source: Census data

It was this model - the "Huey" - that his helicopter attack squadron, "the Seawolves," flew in combat over Vietnam nearly 50 years ago.

The pilot's reaction to the display is what Patriots Point officials hope to evoke from other Vietnam War veterans and the public as the Naval and Maritime Museum aims to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 13-year conflict.

Watters was among about a dozen veterans who attended Patriots Point's groundbreaking ceremony for the new attraction - the "Vietnam Experience" - which will anchor the museum's commemorative programs.

As veterans watched the shovels turn over dirt on the new attraction, it was perhaps a symbol that their country is ready to turn over a new leaf.

"Finally there's recognition, and I think that is what's important to me," Watters said. "The rumors about Vietnam veterans coming home from the war and not being treated well were very true in many places. I experienced it."

Ray Chandler, chairman of the Patriots Point Development Authority Board, said during his speech Friday that the museum's programs over the next three years will confront what it was like for veterans to serve and return home from the politically controversial war.

"We will not bury this war in the mind-set of someone who thinks that it was an inconvenient time in our history," he said. "We are here today not to commemorate the war, but its warriors ... those who fought gallantly when the objectives of their leaders often seemed uncertain."

Patriots Point is among hundreds of organizations across the country that the Department of Defense has partnered with to carry out the commemoration of the war's 50th anniversary over the next three years.

The Charleston tourist attraction will host its next major Vietnam event Oct. 9-12, when it will bring in the American Veterans Traveling Tribute Vietnam Wall, a mobile replica of the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Other programs will include musical tributes, historical symposiums and lectures, many of which will be free to the public.

The Vietnam Experience, the centerpiece of the local commemoration, will re-create the jungle-like atmosphere of a naval supply base in Vietnam. The 3-acre outdoor exhibit will feature a marine artillery fire base, a lagoon and several new military artifacts, such as a Mark I Patrol Boat and a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter.

The Patriots Point Development Board hopes to complete the exhibit in time for Veterans Day on Nov. 11. The board, which is a state agency, will spend $100,000 of its own funds on the $400,000 project. Charleston County has pledged $200,000 in accommodations tax funds, and the town of Mount Pleasant will handle the construction of the lagoon, which is estimated to cost about $60,000. Private donors have footed the rest of the bill.

Mac Burdette, executive director of the Naval and Maritime Museum, said the transformation of the Vietnam War exhibit also will help the museum attract more visitors. A major goal of Patriots Point's three-year plan laid out last year is to bring ticket sales to 260,000 by 2016. To do that, Patriots Point has increased its annual expense budget by 4 percent to update its exhibits with high-tech, interactive features that Burdette says visitors will be willing to pay for to experience.

"We have to get away from static displays .... that's why we're calling it the Vietnam Experience," he said. "Vietnam is a tougher sell because of the politics, but that's what I think also makes it so compelling."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail