By Henry Howard
With hundreds of veterans, government officials and other guests in attendance, a long overdue memorial honoring the nation’s disabled veterans was dedicated during a two-hour ceremony Sunday in Washington.
The 2.4-acre, triangular American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, emerged from nearly 16 years of planning and $80 million in donations. The American Legion supported the memorial through donations and a legislative resolution passed in 2009. It is the nation’s first memorial exclusively dedicated to the 4 million living disabled veterans and the countless others who have passed on.
Standing just 1,000 feet from the U.S. Capitol, the memorial’s walls contain quotes from disabled veterans while images depict the survivors of war’s visible and invisible wounds. A five-star reflective pool and dozens of ginko and Cyprus trees – known for their durability – complete the landscape.
“You walk these quiet grounds – pause by the pictures of these men and women, you look into their eyes, read their words – and we’re somehow able to join them on a journey that speaks to the endurance of the American spirit,” President Barack Obama said. “And to you, our veterans and wounded warriors, we thank you for sharing your journey with us.”
Dennis Joyner’s journey began June 26, 1969.
Joyner, the secretary of the Disabled Veterans for Life Memorial Foundation, shared the story of his 32-day tour in Vietnam.
“We were on patrol when we came to a canal that we needed to cross,” said Joyner, who served in the Army’s 9th Infantry Division. “With the tide coming in, those of us who had already crossed went back to get the non-swimmers across. After getting back in single file formation, little did I know that I would walk the last three steps of my life.”
Joyner never lost consciousness after the explosion that cost him both legs and an arm. “My first thought was that I wanted to die,” said Joyner, who thanked Sgt. Ed Reynolds for helping him not only survive, but thrive. “I would never have survived without you on that battlefield that day or the last 45 years. Without the assurance, you gave me. I owe you my life.”
Obama said stories like Joyner’s will resonate with memorial visitors.
“From this day forward, Americans will come to this place and ponder the immense sacrifice made on their behalf; the heavy burden borne by a few so that we might live in freedom and peace,” Obama said. “Of course, our reflection is not enough. Our expressions of gratitude are not enough.”
Visitors may be able to personally thank a disabled veteran, who is now working at the memorial site.
James Pierce remains on active duty with the Army as he recovers from his leg, wrist and shoulder injuries sustained in a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan. But on weekends, he works as the park’s volunteer coordinator; coaching volunteers and helping them keep up the landscape.
“This park means a lot to me because I am a disabled veteran,” said Pierce, a member of American Legion Post 10 in Wilmington, N.C. “Now I work for the parks service. It has double meaning for me.”
Pierce sees the park as not only a place to remember but a way to educate non-veterans.
“Even though the war has ended, a lot of people still have the scars, memories and disabilities,” he said. “Hopefully, this will educate the general public and/or the veterans themselves about the situation.”
Gary Sinise, the foundation’s national spokesman for the past eight years, said Americans cannot heal the wounds of the disabled veterans, but their service and sacrifice will be recognized.
“Today and from this day forward, we honor millions of our heroes living with the wounds of war with a place of healing, remembrance and gratitude for all they have given,” Sinise said.