The United States Air Force Memorial – “Honoring Airmen, Preserving Heritage”

Located across the Potomac River from Washington DC on the grounds of Fort Meyer and sitting atop a promontory that overlooks the Pentagon, the United States Air Force Memorial holds a special place for me not just as the daughter of a decorated 22-year Air Force veteran but as an Air Force veteran myself - though I've certainly got nowhere near as impressive of a service record as my Dad what with only wearing Air Force blue for 5 years before leaving the service upon the birth of my son.

In the past few years I've had the opportunity to visit twice but sadly my father never had the chance to see the memorial dedicated to "honor the men and women who have served, are serving, or will serve in the United States Air Force and its predecessors, such as the Army Air Corps” as he passed away in February 2003 from the effects of Agent Orange that he was exposed to while serving at Da Nang Air Force Base in South Vietnam in 1966-67.

Part of the reason that my Dad never got to see the memorial that was built for him was because of the difficulties it took for it to be built to begin with. The story starts way back in January 1992 when the Air Force Memorial Foundation was incorporated in order to pursue the development of an Air Force Memorial. Close to two years later in December 1993, President Bill Clinton signed Public Law 103-163 authorizing the building of the memorial and following that in  March 1994, a site on Arlington Ridge down the hill from the Netherlands Carillon was approved by the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission which led to the next steps of approving a design and raising funds.

Then the delays began in the form of a skirmish of sorts between the Air Force and Marines regarding the possible location of the memorial.

As the proposed memorial site was within view of the United States Marine Corps War Memorial - aka the Iwo Jima Memorial - several Marine veterans groups were briefed about the plans to which they voiced no objections so plans proceeded along at the usual rate of things in Washington. That is until July 30, 1997 when plans came to a halt following the introduction of a bill by Congressman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-NY), a Marine veteran, that would prohibit the construction of any monument, memorial or other structure "within view" of the Marine Corps War Memorial. Bad feelings and a lot of legal wrangling followed after the Friends of Iwo Jima along with Congressman Solomon filed for a Temporary Restraining Order against the construction of the Air Force Memorial on September 16, 1997. That was dismissed on June 15, 1998 and then on May 7, 1999 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal of that decision. Faced with the possibility of additional costly litigation and further delays - as well as the opposition of several prominent members of Congress who were also Marine veterans - the Foundation agreed to look for another site for the Memorial.

In December 2001, President George W. Bush signed the 2002 Defense Authorization Bill which included a rider directing the Department of Defense to make up to 3 acres of Naval Annex property available to the Air Force Memorial Foundation. They did so and in 2004 a former Defense Department building was approved for demolition to make way for the memorial. Twelve years after a memorial was first proposed in 1992, at long last the formal groundbreaking for the Air Force Memorial was held on September 15, 2004. In January of 2005 construction began on the memorial designed by German-born American architect James Ingo Freed of Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners. Mr. Freed's other works include the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as well as the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington DC, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, and the San Francisco Main Public Library among others.

Construction on the centerpiece of the memorial - three spires that soar skyward and can be seen from across the Potomac in Washington DC - began in February of 2006 and were completed seven months later. Finally, almost 15 years after the Air Force Association first dreamed of a memorial to honor the service of the personnel of the United States Air Force and its predecessors, the United States Air Force Memorial was dedicated on October 14, 2006 with approximately 30,000 people in attendance who listened to the following words from the ceremony's keynote speaker and former Texas Air National Guard F-102 Delta Dagger pilot, President George W. Bush:

“A soldier can walk the battlefields where he once fought; a Marine can walk the beaches he once stormed; but an airman can never visit the patch of sky he raced across on a mission to defend freedom. And so it's fitting that, from this day forward, the men and women of the Air Force will have this memorial, a place here on the ground that recognizes their achievements and sacrifices in the skies above.

Every man and woman who has worn the Air Force uniform is part of a great history. From the Berlin Airlift to the Korea War, to Vietnam, to the Gulf War, to Kosovo and today's war on terror, a long blue line of heroes has defended freedom in the skies above. To all who have climbed sunward and chased the shouting wind, America stops to say: Your service and sacrifice will be remembered forever, and honored in this place by the citizens of a free and grateful nation.”

If you've got an hour or so and would like to see the dedication ceremony, C-Span has a video that you can watch here.

When designs for the memorial were being submitted, James Freed explained that the reason for the use of three spires was that they would depict the three core values of today's Air Force - "Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do" - as well as also being the smallest number of elements needed to define and enclose a space.

Standing 120 degrees apart while soaring into the sky at the heights of 270, 231, and 201 feet, the three spires also represent the contrails that remain in the sky after the world-famous US Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team takes off in its famous bomb-burst pattern which normally involves four jets. The reason only three of the four contrails are depicted in the design of the memorial was to suggest the Missing Man Formation which is traditionally used at Air Force funeral fly-overs. The Missing Man Formation is also depicted on another design element of the memorial - a free-standing glass Contemplation Wall at the northern end of the plaza before an inscription wall that contains the names of Air Force Medal of Honor winners.

Across the plaza on the southern end of the memorial is an another inscription wall with inspirational quotations regarding the core values of the Air Force. In front of that wall stands the second key feature of the memorial - the four 8-foot tall bronze statues of the Memorial's Honor Guard sculpted by Zenos Frudakis who is known for designing public monuments, portrait statues, busts and figurative sculptures. The Honor Guard statues, acting as a human complement to the towering steel spires of the memorial, took Frudakis almost five years to create as he molded the facial visages of Air Force Honor Guard members stationed at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington DC and tried to install as much life as he could into the figures whose presence represents those who have and those who will continue to protect the dignity of service to the country. In addition to designing and sculpting the Honor Guard, I was informed recently that it was Frudakis who also came up with the design for the memorial's spires. While meeting with principals of the Memorial about the Honor Guard, he drew the spires on a napkin, the principals in turn passed on the design to the Memorial's architect, James Ingo Freed. From Frudakis' perspective, the spires were meant to represent the Missing Man formation and it worked out very well that they also represent the core principles of the Air Force.

Free to visit and open every day except Christmas, in addition to hosting over 275,000 visitors throughout the year, events at the Air Force Memorial include programs by the United States Air Force Concert Band, performances by the USAF Honor Guard Drill Team, wreath-layings, promotion ceremonies, weddings, tours, and a host of over special events. To see what's going on, check out the Events page on their website. Operating hours are: April 1st - September 30th: 8 a.m. – 11 p.m.; October 1st - March 31st: 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. The Memorial Administrative Office and Gift Shop is open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Next time you're wandering around the Washington DC area, if you get the chance take a drive across the Potomac and take a walk beneath the soaring spires of the United States Air Force Memorial which I'm sure my Dad, who began his Air Force career as an aircraft mechanic and was once asked to join the Thunderbirds team and work with them (an honor he turned down as he didn't want to leave my mother raising four kids on her own yet again like when he was deployed overseas), would really have liked to see himself. Too bad Agent Orange took his life before the red tape of politics gave him a chance to do so.


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