by Joe Lee
Disabled American Veterans (DAV) broke ground en today on a memorial 12 years in the making on the corner of Washington and 2nd Streets in the shadow of the Capitol building in Washington D.C.
The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial will stand as a permanent reminder of America’s gratitude for those who have sacrificed in body, mind and spirit to maintain liberty and freedom.
Scheduled to be complete in 2012, the memorial will convey the interplay of strength and vulnerability, loss and renewal through granite and glass. The focal point will be a star-shaped pool – its surface broken only by an eternal flame. Water will flow over the fountain’s perimeter into a larger triangular pool. Three walls of laminated glass with text, images, and four bronze sculptures will tell the universal story of the disabled veteran’s pride of service, trauma, challenge to heal, and rediscovery of purpose.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi briefly discussed the bipartisan effort in Congress to make the funding available for the memorial, during the ground-breaking ceremony.
“[Disabled veterans] gave a part of their lives abroad so we could be safe at home,” she said. “Protecting and remembering our American veterans is and always should be our first priority [in Congress].”
In the name of all veterans past, present, and future, we break ground today to ensure that time does not dim the glory of their deeds,” she added.
Roberto “Bobby” Barrera, a disabled Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War added to Pelosi’s address by describing what it means to a disabled veteran not to be forgotten.
He was injured in 1969 when enemy forces exploded a 500-pound bomb beneath the armored personnel carrier in which he was traveling. The explosion and fire that ripped through the vehicle burned more than 40 percent of his body.
Since battling to overcome physical challenges he faced, Barrera has earned his bachelors degree in psychology from St. Mary’s university and later, a master’s of education degree in guidance and counseling. He was elected chairman of the DAV board at the organization’s 2010 national convention in Atlanta.
Barrera recalled for the audience a poignant moment last year when he participated in a VIP orientation of two B-25 bombers that were to fly over the track during the opening ceremonies of the Indianapolis 500.
“Some of the VIPs were returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Barrera. “One in particular was paralyzed from the waist down. His father pushed the young man along in his wheelchair.
“To enter the B-25 bomber,” explained Barrera, “one has to climb up a steep ladder under the belly of the aircraft.
Barrera had already flown in a B-25, so he knew exactly how much of a challenge it would be for this young man to enter the aircraft.
He described the moment when it came time for the young man to board. His father rolled his son’s wheelchair under the aircraft and without hesitation, walked around and knelt in front of his son’s wheelchair with his back turned to his son. His son then leaned forward and grabbed his father by the arms and the shoulders, leaning as far forward out of his chair as possible. Then, with his son on his back, the father climbed up the ladder of the aircraft.
“That moment took me back some 40 years,” said Barrera, “when I began my journey as a disabled veteran. During those years I, too, was carried. When I thought that I could not take another step; when I thought that everything was so dark; when I thought that I didn’t have a future; when I thought that I could not continue my life – I was carried.
“What that father did for his son in Indianapolis that day clearly demonstrated that he would never abandon his son,” he continued. “This memorial clearly demonstrates that the American people will never abandon their nation’s disabled veterans.”
The effort to build the memorial began in 1998, when Lois Pope met with the now-deceased Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown to create the Disabled Veterans’ LIFE Memorial Foundation.
“Far too often, [our disabled veterans] have been neglected, suffering long after the battle has been won and the guns have gone silent,” said Pope. “We owe them so much, and we can never thank them enough. This memorial will be a good start.”
National spokesperson for the Disabled Veterans’ LIFE Memorial Foundation, actor Gary Sinise, also attended the ceremony. Sinise is often remembered for his oscar-nominated performance as Lieutenant Dan in the movie Forrest Gump. A role Sinise described as “rare for an actor.”
“That role changed me and educated me about the strength and character of our disabled veterans,” said Sinise. “The story of Lieutenant Dan is a hopeful and positive story of triumph over adversity.
“When he was severely injured and his dream of becoming a great officer is altered, he goes through understandable pain and anger, but eventually learns to accept and live with his disability,” he continued. “In the end he finds peace.”
Sinise explained that though he has never served, he has learned much about the tragedies and triumphs of war from his family and the wounded veterans he has visited in the hospital. He has made it a personal goal to visit every veteran’s hospital at home and abroad to thank wounded service members.
“Their service has left a lasting impression on me,” said Sinise. “For all they have done, and all they have sacrificed, they don’t ask much in return. Knowing they are not forgotten, and that their sacrifice is appreciated, makes a world of difference. That’s why we’re here today – to make a world of difference.”
At the close of the ceremony, the crowd parted to make way for several disabled veterans who joined Pilosi, Berrera, Pope, and Sinise in the ceremonial first strike of shovels into the dirt.
Calvin Coolidge once said, “A nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.”
To date, there are more than 3,000,000 living disabled American veterans. More than 30,000 more men and women have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003 with lifelong wounds.
With ground now broken on the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, this nation will be reminded through granite and glass of the sacrifices our service members made for our freedoms, long after the last round goes down range and every one comes home.