The new Circle of Heroes is the nation’s first underwater memorial honoring our nation’s military veterans. Scuba gear notwithstanding, the fact that it has become an underwater reality is a story worth telling.
One might assume such a memorial would be in some diving mecca, perhaps the Florida Keys. But Circle of Heroes is in the Gulf of Mexico about 9 miles off Clearwater Beach, Fla. The first 12 statues were recently lowered into a depth of 47 feet. They will be joined by 12 more statues placed in a 100-foot circle when the memorial is completed next year.
The first dozen 6-foot concrete statues depict nine men and three women from the the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. Circle of Heroes is about a quarter-mile from the popular Veterans Reef diving location.
At a recent dedication ceremony, a fleet of boats with elected leaders, along with veterans and their families, cheered as a ribbon stretched between two boats was cut to officially open the memorial. Scuba divers, including many veterans, then took the first official plunge to explore the Circle of Heroes. The memorial is being paid for with a private donations and public funds from the county.
“This underwater memorial will not just honor our veterans, but it will also serve them,” says retired Army Lt. Col. Bill Wilson of Clearwater. “Diving trips to Circle of Heroes may be used in conjunction with sports therapy programs for disabled veterans struggling with PTSD, depression, trauma and other anxiety disorders.” There is a large Veterans Administration campus in nearby Bay Pines.
The idea for the memorial is credited to longtime St. Petersburg College professor and biologist Heyward Mathews. He has been part of the diving community on the west coast of Florida for a half-century. Mathews believed it would be fitting to honor men and women of the military with statues designed to highlight our branches of service.
In the center of the ring is a 4-foot, 5,830-pound monument featuring five bronze crests, each representing a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The statues were set on the seafloor by a team of veterans working alongside Mathews. It took nearly eight hours to lower the 12 concrete statues to the bottom. Cables are planned to connect each statue’s 2,000-pound base so divers will be able to swim between each when visibility is low. Buoys mark the location of the statues.
The statues do not represent actual people, but branches of the military:
- Navy sailor
- Southeast Asia war soldier
- Korean War soldier
- Marine in dress blues
- Vietnam soldier
- Air Force pilot
- No Man Left Behind
- Gulf War soldier
- Iraq War soldier
- Iraq Freedom Fighter
- Army nurse
- Soldier kneeling and battle cross
Another 12 statues will be added in 2020 to complete the Circle of Heroes.