In the Gulf of Mexico, the Circle of Heroes stands halfway complete… and immersed under 40 feet of water.
On August 5th, a dedication ceremony was held for the unique Veterans Reef memorial, where the first 12 of 24 service member statues have settled into their new sunken duty location—10 miles off the coast of Florida! It is there, nestled in their 100-foot circular configuration, that the 12 will await the arrival of their hero compatriots next year, along a three-ton center monument featuring five bronze emblems for each branch of the Armed Forces.
Dr. Heywood Mathews, an avid scuba diver and Oceanography professor at St. Petersburg College for nearly 50 years, came up with the unique memorial addition to the Veterans Reef area after working on the Pinellas County Artificial Reef program for many years. Under that program, Mathews previously sank Army tanks, as well as a Neptune bomber which ended up being swept away during a violent storm. But unlike the prior military-related reef items, the new project has little to do with building habitats for sea life, instead intending to serve as the first underwater Veteran memorial.
“While the existing materials on Veterans Reef have proven to be very attractive to both anglers and divers, this new project is not designed to provide habitat for food or game fish,” Mathews stated to the Tampa Bay Times. “Having a reef designed especially for veterans would also be the first of its kind in the country and make Pinellas County a dive destination for the whole country and elsewhere.”
The privately funded concrete statues to be featured in the 24-figure exhibit include: a Navy Sailor, a Southeast Asia War Soldier, a Korean War Soldier, a Marine in Dress Blues, a Vietnam Soldier, an Air Force Pilot, a “No Man Left Behind” statue, a Gulf War Soldier, an Iraq War Soldier and more. Each six foot piece weighs roughly 1,300 pounds, and is bolted to a heavy base to ensure none of the sculptures share the same fate as the Neptune.
Though the site was designed with divers in mind, swimmers and snorkelers will also be able to view the memorial while swimming at surface level. But to truly appreciate the beauty of the project, you’ll need to gear up and get down there for a closer look! The current statues were crafted to bear generic features, but future sculptures will be made to look like specific people.
“These are our guys, these are the people that we served with, that we knew, that we don’t know, we’ll never know, but they’re our people.” – David Thomas, Pinellas County Veteran
Dr. Mathews believes the dive will be therapeutic for many Veterans facing service-connected mental health and physical challenges. In fact, Veteran organizations are already looking into arranging shallow dive outings to the new site.
“When you descend below the waves, you enter a place of peace and tranquility. The sounds of chaos are replaced by nothing but your own breath, reminding you that you’re alive and not to waste that miracle on the pain,” said Neysa Grzywa of Deep Sea Valkyries, a group based out of Arizona which takes Veterans on therapeutic aquatic adventures designed to promote healing of the mind, body and soul.
Although the county was able to fund $50,000 during the initial stages of the project, fundraising efforts for the Circle of Heroes continue through Brighter Future Florida, supported by former Congressman David Jolly, Mathews’ nephew. The nonprofit raised $150,000 by the beginning of 2019, but donations are still needed to see it through to the end. The anticipated total cost is close to half a million, however Jolly predicts the new memorial site will more than pay for itself through increased tourism for the area.
“Annual economic impact of just over $7 million of new job creation, of new dive community economic investment,” Jolly stated. “The hope is that this will be a serene place to remember sacrifice.”
Sponsors donating $1,000 or more receive a personalized plaque at the base of one of the statues. To learn more about the project or to donate, visit brighterfutureflorida.org. You might also want to check out the Circle of Heroes at Veterans Reef Facebook page to keep up with the latest updates and see some incredible videos of the dive site’s creation, including one produced by Scuba Diving Magazine!