Twelve brothers and sisters in arms will continue their guardian vigil beneath the waves.
One is a World War II pilot, flight helmet on hip. Another is a sailor, binoculars in hand. A marine in dress blues stands sharply at attention. One carries a fallen comrade on his back, at his feet the words "No man left behind."
The first of its kind, the 12 six-foot-tall concrete sentinels are part of an underwater dive veterans memorial dubbed the "Circle of Heroes." On July 18, they were sunk into place and bolted to the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. On Aug. 5, the memorial officially opened to the public and saw its first divers during a special event, spokesman Preston Rudie told Connecting Vets.
"Seeing something like this in this setting it just makes me remember all the people we didn't bring back and how hard it is -- how we want to bring everyone home," said Staff Sgt. Shawn Campbell, who served 13 years as an Army combat medic. Campbell was one of several veterans who were the first to dive to the memorial. During his dive, Campbell was suprised to find his employer -- Narcosis Scuba -- made a donation to have his name included on the Iraq War soldier's statue.
From beneath the waves, with flippers and yellow air tank, looking into the eyes of the men and women depicted by the statues, Campbell was moved.
"It definitely brings it all home ... Remembering the friends who can't be here anymore," he said.
The nonprofit Brighter Future Florida, headed by former Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly hopes the memorial will become a worldwide diving destination. It is the brainchild of his uncle, diving instructor and oceanographer Heyward Matthews, who had sunk tanks and a Neptune bomber only for them to disappear after a storm.
Located about 10 miles off the Pinellas County coast in 40 feet of water, the plan is for the memorial to eventually include 24 different life-size concrete statues of men and women in the U.S. Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy. The statues will be placed in a 100-foot circle, with a center monument weighing nearly three tons, featuring five bronze emblems -- one for each branch of the United States Armed Services. It’ll take about another $350,000 to complete Phase II -- Rudy said.
“The Circle of Heroes Memorial pays tribute to our nation’s veterans, while reminding us of the sacrifices made to protect our freedoms. Visitors near and far will come to see this iconic dive site, boosting tourism to support our local businesses and promoting the St. Pete/Clearwater region as a top vacation destination,” Jolly said in a statement to Connecting Vets.
Memorial founders hope it will serve as a therapeutic dive site for disabled veterans, including those with post-traumatic stress, depression and other health concerns related to trauma. The memorial itself will also become an artificial reef to help sustain local marine life.
“With the nation’s first underwater memorial, we are shining the spotlight on the importance of remembering those who have fought to protect our freedoms,” said Pinellas County Board Chair Karen Seel. “People around the world will visit this iconic site, increasing dive-related tourism and helping businesses grow in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area.”
"I think this is an amazing thing," Campbell said.