On a cool autumn morning, underneath a gray sky laden with fat clouds that promised buckets of rain that thankfully never came, hundreds, perhaps thousands gathered at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, on the very western edge of Georgia near the banks of the Chattahoochee River. Throw a rock across that river, and you'll hit Alabama.
My husband, Roy, and I are at the museum for the dedication of the new Global War on Terrorism Memorial. Among those who have gathered are Gold Star families, first responders, active duty military, and dignitaries from all branches of service.
Plenty of veterans are here, too, including Roy, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, as well as others like me, the curious and inquisitive who remember Sept. 11, 2001, as vividly as if it were yesterday. The much-anticipated memorial, whose seeds were unintentionally planted on that day, has come to fruition since it was first planned in 2015.
Four-star Gen. John Abizaid, the now retired but longest serving commander of the United States Central Command, and Stan McCrystal, George Casey and Chuck Jacoby, three other four-star generals who served as commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, joined forces to help design the memorial and raise the funds needed to build it.
"It took incredible efforts of many devoted patriots to bring it into reality over these last 2 1/2 years," says U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Eric J. Wesley, who is commandant of the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning, Ga.
The stunning, thought-provoking and most assuredly tear-inducing memorial does not disappoint, especially in its symbolism.
"Memorials are symbols of those who have gone before us," says Wesley as he describes the monument. "Symbols are important." In the relatively scant few years since 9/11 when not only Americans but also much of the world stood still and collectively gasped in surreal horror as the day unfolded, almost 7,000 men and women who were soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have given their lives in the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terrorism. The memorial, built in the quiet shadows of the museum that pays tribute to the infantry, solemnly honors our heroes who have fallen since 2001.
"The memorial, in all its facets, reflects and manifests the emotions, memories, friends lost, the lives of those we deeply loved, loving pride in children who have gone before us, the intimacy and passion of maybe a marriage cut short," Wesley says. "All of those images, in the hearts of thousands who will come through here, are bound together with one simple constant, and that is the character of those who have served and laid their lives down for a friend."
At the front of the memorial are two concrete pillars that represent the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Bridging the pillars is a 13-foot steel beam that was pulled from the wreckage of the North Tower and given to the museum by New York City firefighters. The beam is attached to the pillars at angled heights representing where each was struck by the terrorist-operated aircraft, the North Tower between the 93rd and 99th floors by American Airlines Flight 11, and the South Tower between the 78th and 84th floors by United Airlines Flight 175. It is an arresting image that immediately conjures images of the morning of 9/11. "The symbiology of that beam and by extension those towers, became a symbol for our nation that rose up to take on those who would challenge us," says Wesley.
Several panels of black granite contain the 6,915 names of the fallen. As I touch several of the names on the wall, I involuntarily shiver and shake my head as I think of the craziness of the world during the last 16 years since 9/11. Around me, some cry as they make rubbings with Crayon and paper of the names of their loved ones. And although I know none of them, either the names on the walls or those around me, I cry, too, without an ounce of embarrassment.