CLEARWATER — More than 30 divers, including veteran amputees, counted down Monday before plunging into the choppy gulf waters miles off the Pinellas County coast. They were headed toward a dozen concrete U.S. service members standing in a circle formation 40 feet below.
The Circle of Heroes underwater veteran memorial, which creators call one-of-a-kind, officially opened to the public Monday after about a decade of planning. The six-foot statues and center monument bearing the bronze emblems of five military branches are meant to be a permanent fixture at Veteran's Reef, honoring the armed forces and providing a unique diving experience for tourists and wounded warriors.
"I'm not surprised this came from the Tampa Bay area because we're number one," U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said at the opening ceremony.
Former Congressman David Jolly's nonprofit, Brighter Future Florida, has led the fundraising to complete the memorial designed by his uncle Heyward Matthews, a professor of oceanography at St. Petersburg College.
Matthews wanted to create a memorial that catered specifically to divers and younger Americans who may not be inclined to go to many veteran memorials otherwise.
Eric Waltz, general manager of The Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater, anticipated a boon in tourism dollars to the area as divers come to experience the new memorial.
He and Matthews also found that many veterans suffering from mental illnesses and physical handicaps have taken to diving as a form of therapy. Various dive shops and nonprofits, including the Arizona-based Deep Sea Valkyries, have already made plans to organize diving sessions for wounded veterans.
"When you descend below the waves you enter a world of peace and tranquility," said Neysa Grzywa, director of business operations for the Arizona nonprofit. "The sounds of chaos are replaced with nothing but your own breath, reminding you that you're alive and not to waste that miracle on the pain."
And for veterans with amputations, diving offers a stronger sense of mobility, she said.
Knowing that the new memorial will serve as a diving destination for the latest generation of veterans made it all the more special for Vietnam Marine combat veteran David Miller, who was at the opening ceremony.
"They didn't have this stuff for us," said Miller, 71.
Monday's watery ribbon-cutting featured a special wreath toss honoring Dave Thomas, 77, a Vietnam Air Force veteran who built the memorial's 4-foot high, 3-ton center monument and who passed away Tuesday before the grand public unveiling.
"It's been a part of his heart for the last three years," said his wife, Rana. "This was something we wanted to see to come to fruition."
Pinellas County provided $50,000 in seed money for the project in 2017 and Brighter Future Florida was able to raise an additional $150,000 in time for the opening this year, a spokesman said.
The memorial itself still needs a dozen more statues to be complete, though since the second group of statues will be custom-made, they will cost more, Matthews said. He hopes the final installations will be made by next summer.
Contact Ileana Najarro at email@example.com. Follow @IleanaNajarro