By Elliot Ackerman and Jennifer Ballou | Link to Full Article
Elliot Ackerman, a Marine veteran and author, and Jennifer Ballou, an Army veteran and Gold Star wife, are the co-chairs of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation’s Design Advisory Council.
“I can’t imagine what you went through over there …”
Most veterans of the Global War on Terrorism have heard this line at some point. Usually, it is delivered with compassion, by someone wishing to convey appreciation for the difficulties of deploying to a combat zone, or of losing a friend. But this idea, of not imagining the experiences of veterans, only forces those veterans further apart from the society they served.
Before we left for war, the experience of most veterans was completely recognizable. We might not have attended your high school, but we went to a high school. We might not have rooted for your sports team, but we rooted for a sports team. The rhythms of our lives matched your rhythms. Then, we went to war. And, yes, war changed us.
But it did not make us so different from you. If you’ve ever loved someone and lost them suddenly, or felt intense fear, or experienced despair and needed to pull yourself back from that darkness, you can empathize with the emotional cost of fighting in a war. If you still believe we had truly unimaginable experiences at war, then it follows that we — America’s veterans — were forever altered in ways that make us unknowable. And, if that is true, it means we never really get to come home.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over. Yet today, too many American veterans remain mired in those wars. Our rates of suicide and homelessness exceed those of the general population. The veterans community has struggled to reintegrate into the society we served. In the two decades since the start of the Global War on Terrorism, veteran service organizations, in partnership with the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs, have, through myriad programs, worked to heal the wounds of the roughly 1.9 million Americans who served in it, and their families, particularly the Gold Star families of the more than 7,000 war dead.
The reintegration of the veteran into society isn’t the job of the veteran alone. It’s the job of society, too. This is particularly true for a war that has played quietly in the background of American life for decades. It was not a war that affected the entire country, like World War II or Vietnam, during which massive demonstrations disrupted daily life and dominated the news. Mostly, life went on as normal for most Americans, with neither the nation nor its veterans reconciled to the war’s enduring costs.
In the past, the memorialization of wars has proved an important tool in reconciling those experiences. This is why our national memorials are epicenters of healing.
Last year, the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation, in consultation with several federal advisory commissions, selected a site for a memorial to this conflict. It will sit within the Reserve of the National Mall. This is sacred ground. It will be only the fourth war memorial built within the Reserve — the others being for Vietnam, Korea and World War II. It will sit immediately north of the Lincoln Memorial, across the street from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The latter, dedicated in 1982, was designed by Maya Lin, then a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate and the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Although her design was controversial when it was unveiled, those who have visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial attest to its power, the way it brings visitors to silence, the way its designer — who herself had never been to war — created a work of art that allowed generations of Americans to remember, and tohonor, those who lost their lives.
Although the site for the new memorial has been selected, the design has not. An essential part of that process is the gathering of public input, reinforcing the fact that this memorial isn’t only for veterans; it’s for all Americans. As of Sept. 26 — the day 22 years ago when U.S. personnel first landed in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks — any American can offer thoughts on the design process. Each of us, whether a veteran or a civilian, will have an opportunity over the next 22 days to express views.
After that time, an advisory council, of which we are co-chairs, will work with an architect and use those ideas to finalize plans for the memorial. One of us, Elliot, is a combat-decorated Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, while the other, Jennifer, was deployed at the same time as her husband, Staff Sgt. Edwardo Loredo, to Afghanistan and escorted home his remains after he was killed in action in 2010. Other members include the widow of the first American killed in Afghanistan as well as Gold Star children who lost parents in these wars. But it’s not our contributions that will determine the success of this memorial or help America come to terms with its longest war.
The process by which the final design is chosen is as important as the design itself. The Global War on Terrorism — particularly the war in Afghanistan — has often been referred to as a forgotten war. This memorial represents a chance to show that Americans have not forgotten those who fought. It is also an opportunity for our country to reconcile itself to the implications of this era. Participation matters. A memorial with mass participation will convey a more profound meaning than one with narrow participation.
A memorial to an ongoing war is a unique prospect in the history of American war memorials. So, too, is one that gives us the opportunity to confront humankind’s penchant for fighting. War is, of course, a part of human nature. Perhaps this will be an opportunity for our society to make the truest war memorial possible: a monument to this fault in our nature.
It is easy to be skeptical about a war memorial having a substantive, positive impact on society. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial offers a powerful counterargument to this skepticism. Unlike the World War II Memorial or Korean War Veterans Memorial, it was built when the war was fresh in America’s consciousness. At its dedication, 150,000 veterans and their families descended on the National Mall. It became a reunion, not only of veterans with one another but also between veterans and the society they had served. More than one Vietnam veteran has credited the memorial with saving his life. It remains the second-most-popular site on the National Mall, attracting some 5 million visitors annually.
The Global War on Terrorism Memorial will also make its debut when the war is fresh in the minds of the public. Its success depends on the engagement of as many Americans as possible.
We look forward to the day when Americans will walk down the National Mall to dedicate our memorial, to imagine the experiences we have had. In doing so, we will reunite veterans with the society that they served, and take our final steps home together.