On Sept. 11, 2019, the Global War on Terrorism turned 18. The GWOT is by far the longest military conflict in U.S. history, eclipsing the previous contender (the Vietnam War) by at least eight years. In 2014, a group of like-minded individuals — veterans, spouses of veterans, and civilians — felt it was time to pay formal tribute to those who have served, and continue to serve, in the GWOT. These patriots formed the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation, which officially became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization on May 15, 2015.
The foundation’s mission is to become the Congressionally designated entity authorized to build a permanent GWOT memorial in Washington. According to the GWOT Memorial Foundation website, the memorial will “… honor the members of the Armed Forces who served in support of our nation’s longest war, especially those who gave the ultimate sacrifice … as well as their families and friends.”
Unfortunately, the effort encountered an obstacle right out of the chute. The Commemorative Works Act of 1986 imposed a 10-year waiting period after the end of a conflict before it could be memorialized in our nation’s capital. Therefore, one of the first tasks was to lobby Congress for an exemption. In early 2017, two GWOT veterans, U.S. Representative Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., and Seth Moulton, D-Mass., led the effort to do just that. They introduced HR 873, the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Act, which proposed the GWOT memorial as a commemorative work on federally owned land in the District of Columbia and exempted the project from the 10-year moratorium. Furthermore, the act authorized the GWOT Memorial Foundation as the organization with exclusive rights to commission the work.
In just six months’ time, despite a polarized political climate dominated by gridlock, the legislation swept through Congress with unanimous support — a testament to the project’s worthy goal. It was signed into law by President Donald Trump in August of the same year. GWOT Memorial Foundation president and CEO Michael “Rod” Rodriguez said he and his leadership were certainly pleased with HR 873’s speedy trip through Congress, but they weren’t surprised.
“[The fast turnaround] just speaks to the broad support that exists,” he said. “This really is a nonpartisan issue. We introduced the legislation shortly after President Trump’s inauguration — we weren’t really worried about it because there are no politics behind what we’re trying to do.”
Rodriguez, who took the reins in 2018, shortly after the bill was passed, refers to himself as the man who has the “undeserved honor” of leading the project. However, he is immensely qualified to do so. The 21-year U.S. Army veteran is a former Green Beret with multiple post-9/11 deployments under his belt. Rod retired in 2013 as a result of injuries sustained in combat.
In addition to being the longest war in U.S. history, the GWOT also represents the first multi-generational conflict — which means we are now seeing soldiers who are the children of veterans who deployed early in the conflict. Rodriguez’ wife is also a 21-year Army veteran, and their son is an infantryman in the 82nd Airborne Division and recently returned from a deployment in Afghanistan. The three have 16 deployments between them.
“My son patrolled the same areas of Afghanistan in the Helmand province that my wife and I did,” Rod said. “I was there in 2005, she was there in 2006, and our son was there in 2017.”
Looking ahead to the completion of the memorial project, the foundation has narrowed down the location to three pre-established sites in the “reserve” — an area of the National Mall that stretches north/south from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial and east/west from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol building. The construction of anything within the reserve requires Congressional approval.
The reserve is a logical choice for the GWOT Memorial because it’s home to many of the existing war memorials in Washington. However, the foundation still did a great deal of research before settling on that location.
“This memorial does not belong to any one individual,” Rodriguez explained. “It’s to all those who served. So, in 2018, along with our architectural firm, we began conducting discussion groups across the country … to determine what the American people wanted. We talked to hundreds of people, [including] Blue Star families — families of those who are actively serving — and Gold Star families, obviously families who lost a loved one to the Global War on Terrorism. We spoke with veterans from all our country’s wars since World War II. We spent three days on Fort Bragg, sponsored by FORSCOM, talking to peer groups. We spoke to faith leaders to get their thoughts. And we also spoke to the greater part of our population — those who never wore the uniform.”
Rod and his team took great care to educate the groups, explaining the GWOT Memorial project and showing the location and topography of the National Mall and its surrounding area. These groups were asked to complete surveys, not only to gather input on site selection but also ideas about the physical design of the memorial itself — hard structures, water features, shrubbery and other vegetation, etc. After synthesizing the qualitative and quantitative data collected in the surveys, the foundation confirmed that America overwhelmingly supported a plan to select a site within the reserve.
Rodriguez said that respondents were aware that Congressional approval would be required to build within the reserve. “I told them not to worry about the extra work,” he said. “It was the foundation’s responsibility to carry out the wishes of the American people.”
To obtain the required approval, the GWOT Memorial Foundation partnered with For Country Caucus, a bipartisan alliance of 19 veterans dedicated to finding areas of compromise to move the country forward. With a mantra of “policy over politics,” the caucus was an ideal group to champion the cause. On Nov. 12, 2019, the day after Veterans Day, House Representatives Jason Crow, D-Colo., and Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., introduced the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Location Act, seeking permission to commission the GWOT Memorial on one of three sites near the Korean, Vietnam, and World War II memorials.
Fundraising is ongoing, with a present goal of $50 million. This is a modest number considering that the World War II Memorial cost more than $180 million and the final tab for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was approximately $120 million. The actual design process for the GWOT Memorial has not yet begun, but Rodriguez and the foundation established the $50 million goal as a starting point. Once the site is selected, he acknowledged that the price tag could potentially increase. Assuming Congress passes a GWOT Memorial Location Act bill quickly, the foundation hopes to dedicate the memorial by 2024.
Some critics might point out that the U.S. has never built a national memorial for an active war — so why start now?
“The Global War on Terrorism is old enough to vote, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon,” said Gallagher. “Honoring the service, as well as the sacrifices of all those who have served in the Global War on Terrorism, is overdue.”
“Just like this war has no precedence, this memorial has no precedence either,” Rodriguez added. “We really want to avoid what happened to the Greatest Generation. [Many of those veterans] never saw the World War II Memorial. They passed before it was completed. Furthermore, parents of fallen GWOT service members are in their 60s, 70s, and even older. If we don’t do this now, when is the right time? We share a sacred duty to honor all those who have selflessly served in our nation’s longest war. This is a charge [the foundation] does not take lightly — a charge we will remain loyal to and a charge we intend to keep.”