For the last 20 years, a scuba diving instructor and oceanographer in Pinellas County, Florida, has been trying to make the area’s Veterans Reef more interesting than a bronze plaque and an American flag.

But after the Army tanks he put underwater rusted and a storm ripped his Neptune bomber plane to pieces, Heyward Mathews knew he had to come up with a better idea for the attraction located 10 miles off the coast of Dunedin Beach.

“(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,” he said.

That it is.

When Circle of Heroes officially opens — as soon as Mathews’ multiple iterations of Gen. Patton’s prayer for fair weather get answered — the new memorial will feature life-size cement statues of service members around a 100-foot circle. It will be the first of its kind in the country, its creators say, and has the potential to draw people from all over the world.

And since it will be only 40 feet below the surface, guests don’t have to be expert scuba divers; even surface-level swimmers will be able to see the statues with a snorkel.

The statues weigh 1,300 pounds each and will be bolted down to the bottom of the reef in a 100-foot circle by 2,000-pound bases as soon as weather on the Gulf Coast permits. There are currently 12 completed, and the eventual plan is to have 24.

Most of them are generic faces — symbolic representations of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have served since World War I. However, a few statues in the next set will be custom made to look like specific people, including a member of the Coast Guard who died in the 1980 Blackthorn accident near Tampa Bay.

“We want this thing to last 100 years,” said John David White, director of the nonprofit Brighter Future Florida that is spearheading the project. “We think it will.”

The group has been working on the memorial for three years, receiving $50,000 in seed money from the county and other sponsorships from local dive shops for phase one. They are still fundraising for the second phase that will open next summer. Mathews said it’s expected to cost $350,000.

Sponsorships are also open to individuals interested in buying personalized plaques to honor loved ones who have served.

Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers said the underwater memorial is a continuation of the county’s focus on veterans, who at nearly 87,000 strong make up 11 percent of the adult population in the area, according to census data.

The county is already home to a Veterans Memorial Park near the local VA hospital and recently received a Purple Heart County distinction from the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

“At the end of the day, (Circle of Heroes) fits our focus on veterans, and it fits our focus on tourism,” Eggers said.

The memorial has already garnered interest on social media from diving clubs around the country.

“They like to do something different, and after awhile you get tired of seeing shipwrecks,” Mathews said. “I think it’s something that will attract a lot of divers, as well as a lot of veterans.”

White said there’s already a veteran-focused nonprofit that is planning to bring a group of amputees to see the memorial as a form of therapy.

“It’s a dive destination — yes,” he said. “But it’s also going to give back to the veterans that may be able to benefit from it.”

Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.

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