It wasn’t the typical ribbon cutting ceremony.
Instead of standing in front of some building, Heyward Matthews, a professor of oceanography at St. Petersburg College, wielded the oversized scissors in the water and cut a ribbon strung between two boats.
That’s because Matthews was dedicating the opening of the nation’s first underwater dive memorial honoring veterans, located 40 feet below the surface 10 miles off the coast of Dunedin Beach, Florida.
Matthews has been pushing the idea for the “Circle of Heroes" for almost 10 years.
"(I) just wanted something that was going to be permanent and also wanted something that was going to honor our veterans in a unique and different way,” Mathews told the Military Times in June.
In addition to honoring veterans, Mathews would like the memorial to be a therapeutic dive site for disabled veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and depression. He also wants it to serve as an artificial reef in order to help sustain marine life in the gulf.
The memorial currently features 12 life-size concrete statues depicting men and women from each of the five service branches. The statues will be arranged in a 100-foot circle facing a pentagon shaped memorial containing bronze emblems of each of the five service branches. The statues’ 2,000 pound bases also contain plaques with names of service members.
In total, the memorial will have 24 statues, the remaining 12 statues are expected to be installed in 2020 in order to complete the 100-foot Circle of Heroes.
The statues were made possible through the cooperation of private businesses, community donors and Pinellas County. Spearheading the campaign to complete the memorial is a non-profit created by former Congressman David Jolly, known as Brighter Future Florida. Jolly is Matthews’ nephew and spoke today during the memorials dedication ceremony.
“This underwater exhibit featuring our nation’s heroes will also help sustain marine life in our gulf waters by serving as an artificial reef,” said Jolly, “I also thank my uncle, Dr. Heyward Mathews, for creating the concept, and for his dedication to growing the dive community and tourism in our region."
Pinellas County Board Chair Karen Seel and Congressman Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., also spoke at the ceremony. Seel believes that on top of honoring veterans, the memorial will also help bring tourism to the region.
“We are celebrating a momentous day for our county, our state and our nation. But most importantly, we’re honoring our heroes with an indelible legacy that will be admired for generations," said Bilirakis.“This treasure of the gulf will forever remind us of their sacrifices and their service to our country.”