Even before the U.S. signed a peace deal with the Taliban last month, some members of Congress were trying to build a national memorial to veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Colorado Democratic Rep. Jason Crow teamed up with Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin on legislation that allows a “Global War on Terrorism” memorial to get space on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Crow is a former Army Ranger who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Gallagher was a Marine Corps intelligence officer who deployed to Iraq.
For them, the memorial is about having a place to honor duty and service to country.
“It’s not about the politics or policy of the war,” Crow said. “It’s about the service of millions of Americans who have stepped up to do what millions of Americans before us have done, and millions will do in the future. And that’s important to who we are as a country.”
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been America’s longest wars, launched in 2001 and 2003, respectively. Under the newly-signed peace agreement, the U.S. agreed to begin drawing down its forces in Afghanistan within 135 days. The U.S. eventually could withdrawal entirely if the Taliban meet certain commitments.
“We’re not saying ‘Mission Accomplished. There’s nothing to see here.’ Indeed the opposite,” Gallagher said. “We’re reminding everybody of the enormous cost of these wars.”
Reps. Crow and Gallagher have more than 45 co-sponsors for the bill, but time is quickly running out in the congressional legislative session.
Usually, Congress doesn’t authorize a war memorial until at least a decade after the conflict has ended. However, some service members who fought in the wars are now middle-aged or older, and it can take decades for a memorial to be approved and constructed.
“I don’t think it’s right to wait until some of the veterans aren’t around to see it,” Crow said.
Just as important to the two legislators is the memorial location – The National Mall, located in the heart of the nation’s capital. The two led a running tour of possible locations last fall.
The Mall has limited space and there are 11 other active memorial projects already in the works – including monuments to Dwight Eisenhower, the Peace Corps, and Gold Star Mothers. A commission advises the federal government on national memorials.
But with an increasing number of war memorials proposed, it’s led some to ask what’s the right mix. If the Mall is a space of collective national identity, isn’t America more than its wars?
That question resonated with Army Veteran Chris Yeazel. He said the Washington, D.C. area already has a powerful reminder of the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – Arlington National Cemetery.
“I think that’s a pretty powerful memorial in and of itself,” he said.
Yeazel would like to see Congress more focused on helping current veterans transition from war.
“Let’s just be good Americans and do our part to leave a better society for future generations,” he said.
But supporters cite the experience of the World War II generation to push the Afghanistan and Iraq memorial. The proposal for a World War II memorial was first introduced in Congress in 1987, was signed into law in 1993, and finally opened in 2004 – almost 60 years after the end of the war. Many veterans didn’t live to see it.
Michael Rodriguez, a retired Special Forces Green Beret and president of the Global War On Terrorism Memorial Foundation, doesn’t want that to happen to those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“If we don’t this now, my question is a question I throw back. ‘Well, when?'” he asked.
While he agrees that the Mall, America’s front yard, should reflect U.S. life, he said veterans play a particularly prominent role in the nation’s history.
“What we’re honoring are those people that step up and defend and protect everything we want to highlight,” Rodriguez said.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.