En español | To see the latest memorial dedicated to U.S. military veterans, visitors must take a boat 10 miles offshore into the Gulf of Mexico and plunge 40 feet underwater wearing scuba gear.
The Circle of Heroes underwater memorial, off the coast of Clearwater, Fla., which opened to the public earlier this month, consists of 12 life-size concrete statues that feature men and women who represent the nation's five military branches: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.
Its location, Veterans Reef, marked by buoys, is a popular boating spot off of Clearwater. Visitors can take their own boat or hire one of the many dive charter boats in the Tampa area to descend into the water.
Local officials hope this unique memorial — the only one of its kind — will boost dive-related tourism in the area and help sustain marine life by serving as an artificial reef. It is also set to be used as a therapeutic dive site for disabled veterans suffering from PTSD, depression and trauma.
Heyward Mathews professor of oceanography at St. Petersburg College, dreamed up the site about 10 years ago.
Mathews had long been working on the Pinellas County Artificial Reef program, says John David White, director of the nonprofit Brighter Future Florida, in charge of creating the memorial. “Dr. Mathews thought about how we can create a reef that honors our veterans as well."
Although no one in the core group of organizers is a veteran, Florida has one of the highest concentration of veterans in the country.
Mathews, White and other organizers raised money from private businesses and community donors; they're still collecting donations to install 12 more statues in 2020 that will complete a 100-foot circle.
Among the plans for phase two are to build an exhibit above water — good news for visitors not willing or able to don scuba gear — and a livestream of the site.