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.
Some of the panels have intentionally been left blank, as the war goes on and on, sometimes, it seems, with no end in sight. Plans are to hold annual ceremonies to add names to those empty panels.
"Unlike so many other memorials that are dedicated long after the end of the war, we dedicate this memorial in the middle of deadly conflict," says Abizaid. "We pray that that the names to be added are few, but we understand that the conflict in which we are engaged remains difficult and dangerous."
At the center of the memorial is a five-sided platform paying tribute to those who were killed in the Pentagon. Atop the platform is a bronze figure, astonishing in detail down to the shoelaces, of Spc. Ross McGinnis of Knox, Pa., a Medal of Honor recipient whose award was given posthumously. (McGinnis died in Iraq in 2006). Eight other bronze statues flank that of McGinnis and represent an infantry squad. Tom and Romayne McGinnis, the fallen soldier's parents, were among the Gold Star families who traveled to Columbus for the event.
The memorial is wedged between the National Infantry Museum, which opened in 2009, and the Vietnam Memorial Plaza that includes the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall, a three-quarter scale model of the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.
The Vietnam Wall replica, like its counterpart in Washington, is also engraved with the names of more than 58,000 servicemen and servicewomen who died or were declared missing in Vietnam.
The Global War on Terrorism Memorial has a fitting place at the museum, which CNN Travel declared one of the top military museums in the world. Since it opened, it has seen some 2.5 million visitors, with Roy and me among that number on several occasions.
The museum, whose front looks deceptively close to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello with its round rotunda, is perched high on a hill overlooking Inouye Field, where Fort Benning basic training graduation ceremonies take place just about every Thursday and Friday morning.
The entire museum complex, which one guide calls "the Smithsonian of the Army," is huge at 190,000 square feet, and from its bronze "Follow Me" memorial of a charging infantryman standing sentry under the rotunda to a series of galleries and exhibits filled with a colossal collection of artifacts that recognizes the Army infantrymen, those grunts, the foot soldiers, the battleground warriors who stood on the front lines of war. Among its showpieces is the "Last 100 Yards," an upward sloping ramp surrounded by 360-degree dioramas featuring scenes of infantrymen from America's greatest wars beginning with Yorktown and meandering through 200 years of battles in France, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam to Iraq.
As the ceremony to dedicate the museum's newest memorial draws to a close, the gray skies fill with deep, pulsating hums of three Black Hawk helicopters from the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade of Fort Benning. The Black Hawks whirl and skim over the crowd in a "missing man flyby" to symbolize those who died in the war on terrorism, and I think it a fitting salute to the fallen and their families honored that day. "Let us resolve that their sacrifice be meaningful to our children and our children's children," Abizaid says as the clouds finally begin to part and the first sunbeams of the day shine on the memorial. "At the same time, let us thank those still serving and encourage those willing to serve in the years ahead because our ideals, no matter how noble, will be challenged and our way of life will come under threat."
Columbus Airport (CSG) is served by Delta Air Lines from Atlanta. All major airlines offer nonstop service to Atlanta, about an hour's drive from Columbus.
WHERE TO EAT
Fife and Drum Restaurant and Bar, 1775 Legacy Way, Columbus 706-685-5801 www.nationalinfantrymuseum.org/fife/. Onsite restaurant featuring appetizers, salads, sandwiches and burgers. Open for lunch only Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
WHERE TO STAY
Hampton Inn Columbus and Fort Benning, 2870 S. Lumpkin Road, Columbus 706-660-5550 www.hamptoninn.com. The National Infantry Museum is only a short walk from the hotel.
National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, 1775 Legacy Way, Columbus 706-685-5800 www.nationalinfantrymuseum.org. Entrance is free, but a $5 donation is suggested. Museum hours are 9 a.m.-5p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and Sunday 11a.m.-5p.m. Closed Mondays.
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