A federal monument to Iraq and Afghanistan vets is years away, but states are erecting their own

While the national memorial goes through a lengthy planning and fundraising process, veterans are working with state and local governments to build smaller monuments around the country.

By Desiree D'Iorio, American Homefront ProjectMay 31, 2024 10:45 am

From the American Homefront Project:

In 2021, the last U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan, marking the end of a 20-year war that took thousands of American lives.

Not long after the withdrawal, Army veteran David Vieira began batting around ideas for a monument to commemorate America’s longest war. He and his friends sketched it on the back of a bar napkin at his local VFW in Connecticut.

“We drew the map of Afghanistan, we drew the map of Iraq — in chicken scratch — and we drew the towers and our little eagle in front,” Vieira said.

The napkin has been lost, but Vieira said the completed monument is pretty close to what they imagined. On May 18, he and other members of the Afghanistan Iraq Veterans War Memorial Fund held a dedication ceremony. The non-profit group raised $400,000 and oversaw construction on Connecticut’s first monument in honor of veterans who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

The monument in Danbury, CT consists of two 10-foot replicas of New York’s World Trade Center, to acknowledge the September 11 attacks that galvanized so many of this generation’s warfighters. On each side sit black granite blocks: one in the shape of Afghanistan and another of Iraq, the main theaters in the war. Separate blocks contain the names of the 65 Connecticut service members who died.

Vieira said the monument commemorates honor, courage, and sacrifice. For him, it evokes solace.

“My daughter was little when I deployed to Afghanistan,” Vieira said. “So to be able to take her to a place to see the community recognizing it, and to be able to point to the map and show her where I was, that just has a special meaning. I think that that is something that every veteran feels and can connect with.”

The lack of a national dedicated space for these wars was a driving force behind Vieira’s efforts to get the monument built.

“We all either personally knew somebody or know indirectly someone that we served with in Afghanistan or Iraq that has committed suicide since we’ve been home,” Vieira said. “And we just find it unacceptable that they never had a place to see their service recognized in a real permanent way — to see the community recognizing and showing their appreciation for their service and sacrifice.”

Connecticut’s new monument to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans consists of two 10-foot replicas of New York’s World Trade Center, to acknowledge the September 11 attacks. On each side sit black granite blocks – one in the shape of Afghanistan and another of Iraq. Separate blocks contain the names of the 65 Connecticut service members who died.
Desiree D’Iorio / American Homefront

Connecticut is not alone in its endeavor. Memorials to honor the veterans of these wars have gone up in communities throughout the country. Plans are underway to construct a national memorial in Washington, D.C. to sit among the country’s other famous memorials, but that process has been bogged down with bureaucratic hurdles and strict federal laws about how, when, and where to build.

The Global War On Terrorism Memorial Foundation is the group that’s been tasked with planning, funding and eventually building the national memorial. Michael Rodriguez, the foundation’s president, said there’s not even a rough draft yet of what the memorial will look like.

But he said that doesn’t mean the group hasn’t been hard at work.

They needed Congress to grant an exemption to a law that requires 10 years to pass from the official end of a conflict before a national memorial can be built. Then they had to go back to Capitol Hill for another exemption — this time for the proposed location on the reserve in the National Mall.

“I’m thankful it is so damn difficult to get this done, because who knows what would be up there if it was an easy process,” Rodriguez said.

Now, the design team is preparing renderings which Rodriguez expects should be ready by the end of this year. Then it needs government approval.

“We want to be sure that whatever this memorial comes out to look like — this functional piece of civic art that’s going to adorn our nation’s front lawn in perpetuity — we want to make sure it fits and it looks appropriate and yes, that it belongs there,” Rodriguez said.

All the while, Rodriguez has been aggressively fundraising as the foundation grinds through each step of the process. By law, the project cannot use taxpayer funds. His goal is $110 million.

“We’re also going to have an engagement layer that’s digital,” Rodriguez said. “A digital interpretation center with interactive AR [augmented reality] and VR [virtual reality], and that stuff’s not cheap.”

Construction could start as early as 2026 and be completed by 2027, according to Rodriguez. When it’s finished, the Global War on Terrorism Memorial will stand near the Vietnam War Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.

Back in Danbury, Connecticut, veterans and their families said memorials — local or national — perform their own kind of service.

“The value of it is there are so many memories and thoughts inside of our veterans that we don’t know about,” Celeste Fleuri Valbennett said. She came to the unveiling with her husband, an Army veteran.

“This is what he needs. This is where he can come to remember.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.