Seventeen years have passed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which was the catalyst for the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Most adults can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on that clear, fall day in 2001. They can tell you how their lives have changed since then as well — reminiscing to when you could pick up your loved one directly from the gate at an airport or to a time when you didn’t hear about servicemembers across the globe dying as they conduct combat operations in a time of war.
The GWOT continues with no clearly forecasted end in sight. Americans have been deployed to not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but to locations around the world such as Kenya, Philippines, Niger, Sudan, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Somalia and more.
Young recruits joining the military today have only ever known a post-9/11 world. This really struck home for me when my eldest son returned from his first deployment to Afghanistan earlier this year with the 82nd Airborne Division. He was 4 when the towers fell. At 17, Americans can enlist in the U.S. armed forces, much like I did in 1992. In fact, this Sept. 11th marks the first time in U.S. history that recruits will serve in a war that started before they were born. This underscores the true scope and impact of our nation’s longest war and the importance of working now — without delay — to build a national memorial in honor of our fallen warriors, U.S. servicemembers, their families and the American people.
Why build a memorial now?
This memorial, when built, will be for the men and women who have died fighting, those who continue to fight and those who are still joining the fight against terrorism.
By building a national memorial in their honor, we are building a memorial to a living war — something that’s never been done in this country. But then again, the GWOT is a war unlike any we have ever seen. This is our nation’s first multi-generational war. We cannot look to past precedent on when memorials were built, as this conflict has no precedent.
Some GWOT veterans who were already serving or enlisted following 9/11 are now in their 40s, 50s or 60s. These veterans saw the earliest days of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is vital and our duty to build a national memorial within the lifetime of this first generation of GWOT veterans. They deserve a place to gather, heal, gain new perspective and honor lost loved ones — as well as educate the greater populace on their individual service and sacrifice.
According to the Defense Manpower Data Center, less than 1 percent of America’s population serves in the military today. When I hear this statistic, I am filled with pride. I am incredibly proud that it only takes 1 percent to defend the 99 percent. This speaks to the strength, efficiency, selfless service and resiliency of those who choose to wear the uniform, but it also means that many people in this country do not know someone who has served in the GWOT. The demographics and makeup of the U.S. armed forces make the military the most diverse and inclusive organization in existence today, which comes together for a noble cause — to support and defend. Those of us who wear the uniform are a direct reflection of the American people. We may have made different career choices, but we are no different than the 99 percent.
While I firmly believe that a divide does not exist between servicemembers and civilian American citizens like the divide my father experienced coming home from Vietnam, I do feel what we have today is a misunderstanding.
Research conducted by the George W. Bush Institute found that 71 percent of Americans say they do not understand the problems faced by those who have served since 9/11. And veterans agree: 84 percent of veterans say the public has little awareness of the issues facing them and their families.
Building a memorial to a living war raises important questions about the role and purpose of memorials. We as a foundation believe a national GWOT memorial will serve not only as a point of healing and reflection, but also as a point of unity and education, bringing all Americans together to enhance their understanding of the complexities and sacrifices of this war. By understanding what the war means, and how it affects those who served, we as a nation can learn from it and better ourselves in the process. Whether we wore the uniform or not, we are all bound together by the same ideals, and we are all Americans. This will be America’s memorial.
In the view of the foundation and our supporters, it is imperative that a memorial befitting everyone who served in the longest war of our 242-year history, and all who support them, be conspicuously placed on America’s front yard — the National Mall in Washington.
Michael “Rod” Rodriguez is president and CEO of the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation. He served in the U.S. Army for 21 years, retiring as a Green Beret.