U.S. military veterans have a new memorial where they can reflect on their service 40 feet beneath the ocean's surface off the coast of Clearwater, Florida.
The first underwater military monument of its kind in the nation, the Circle of Heroes veterans' memorial opened Aug. 5 with a ceremony debuting a dozen, life-size statues depicting U.S. military personnel from all branches of service.
The memorial site is located 10 miles off the Pinellas County coast and eventually will include 24 life-size concrete statues of men and women from the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy, according to the website for Brighter Future Florida, a nonprofit group raising donations for the memorial.
The memorial is scheduled to be completed in 2020. All of the statues will surround a center monument featuring five bronze emblems representing each service.
"The Circle of Heroes will be a premier international diving destination and will also serve as a place where veterans with physical and mental injuries can heal," the website states.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony dedicated a special wreath to honor Dave Thomas, a 77-year-old Air Force and Vietnam veteran who built the memorial's 4-foot-high, 3-ton center monument.
Thomas passed away just before the public unveiling, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
"It's been a part of his heart for the last three years," his wife, Rana, told the Times. "This was something we wanted to see come to fruition."
Shawn Campbell, a former Army staff sergeant who served three combat tours in Iraq, did a scuba dive to see the new memorial about a week after it opened.
He was shocked to see that one of the statues had been dedicated in his name. The dive shop he works for made a donation to place his name at the base of the statue depicting a soldier who served in Iraq before it was lowered into place, according to a recent Army news release.
"It really took my breath away," Campbell, who is now a master diver at Narcosis Scuba in Tarpon Springs, Florida, said in the release. "It was a huge honor."
He said scuba diving relaxes him and helps him deal with his post-traumatic stress from the war.
"It helps me deal with things," he said in the release. "It's kind of hard to have a bad day when you're underwater and you get to reflect upon yourself."
Sam Flores, who attended the memorial's dedication ceremony, told News Channel 8 in Tampa that his brother, Billy, was a Coast Guardsman who died on the CGC Blackthorn when it collided with a tanker and sank in 1980.
"He threw life preservers to the survivors in the water," Flores told Channel 8. "And it cost him his life to stay behind with the ship."
For his actions, Billy Flores will be memorialized with one of the statues placed in 2020, News Channel 8 reported.
For Campbell, a former combat medic, visiting the memorial helped him remember soldiers he served with in Iraq.
"I had a lot of friends who didn't make it back," he said in the release. "And even more who did make it back, but then couldn't win the battle with themselves after the war."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.