While casualties in America's war on terror have slowed significantly, the recent deaths of Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler in Iraq, and of Air Force Maj. Phyllis Pelky and Master Sgt. Greg Kuhse in Afghanistan, are tragic reminders that our service members continue to put their lives on the line each day. They volunteer. No one is drafted to fight the nation's wars any more.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, thousands have given their lives. The names of those who died in the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, are beautifully and appropriately memorialized on hallowed grounds. Those who've paid the ultimate sacrifice to ensure such attacks never occur again should also be remembered in a national memorial in Washington, D.C.
The creation of a high-level, dedicated group to analyze this important mission and decide on the timing for a full scale effort, as was done with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1979, is the obvious place to start.
As an Army infantryman, I was in a controversial conflict and believed Americans needed a common space for healing. A national memorial, as a place where veterans and civilians could find some common ground, became my goal.
The nature of that war, combined with traditional political infighting, made for an unfamiliar battleground. But miraculously the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was funded and completed in just three years. Basically, I got lucky. I had the support of talented volunteers from West Point and the Harvard Business School helping navigate the minefields presented by Congress, President Ronald Reagan's White House and the media.
Creating a memorial to those who've served in the war on terrorism will be a complex undertaking as well.
Like Vietnam, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom were costly enterprises that remain the subject of much finger pointing in Washington. They've cost taxpayers billions of dollars but have brought about no conclusion.
Unlike Vietnam, America's war on terrorism will likely see no official declaration of peace. Hostilities appear perpetual, as conflict continues in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere.
In creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial we had a mantra: "Separate the war from the warrior." Today, many — probably most — opine that the American effort in Vietnam was a major blunder. The outcome, it is argued, was inevitable. Wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan have had comparable historical precedents going back to Alexander the Great. Iraq seems to have similar consensus. The debate remains contentious, as it should be.
So what should the nation memorialize? Saluting the patriotic service of the veterans is a sensible and safe approach. But when is the right time? This is the time to start serious discussion, and I am honored to advise as a volunteer.
One issue, which only Congress can address, is the Commemorative Works Act stipulating that a decade must pass before any such work can begin. The OEF mission in Afghanistan "officially" concluded last December. In reality, though, the war on terror may never end. As Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has pointed out to me: "If we wait for our hostilities to end, [a memorial will] never happen."
Will the right people advance this idea to and within Congress?
What I didn’t know in 1979 was that, much to the chagrin of Washington's city planners, cCongressional approval for the Vietnam Wall would begin a stampede on Capitol Hill for various memorials on or near the national mall: the Korean War Memorial in 1995 and the World War II Memorial in 2004. There is a plan for a World War I Memorial to be built near the White House in 2018 — 100 years after the war ended. A Gulf War Memorial is also in the works.
The sacrifices rendered by those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq must be recognized too. Since 2001, only a small percentage of Americans have gone to war. Most of the country remained unburdened by the death and destruction these violent conflicts brought. Americans like Wheeler, Pelky and Kuhse gave everything, and their devotion to this nation deserves to be remembered.
Who will step forward?
Jan C. Scruggs, Esq., is retired from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which he founded in 1979. He served in the Army's 199th Light Infantry Brigade. His contact information is firstname.lastname@example.org.