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Iraq, Afghan veterans seek memorial for war without end

Brian and Alma Hart of Bedford scouted memorial locations in August. Their son, Private First Class John D. Hart, died when his unit was ambushed in Iraq in 2003.

Brian Hart

Brian and Alma Hart of Bedford scouted memorial locations in August.

WASHINGTON — Brian and Alma Hart of Bedford frequently visit marker 60-7892 at Arlington National Cemetery, the grave site of their son, who died when his unit was ambushed in Iraq in 2003.

But their visits to the capital area do not stop there. They also search for another, more prominent location to memorialize Private First Class John D. Hart — and the estimated 2.5 million of his comrades from America’s post-9/11 wars.

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The Harts are part of a diverse movement of veterans and families seeking to establish a national memorial to honor those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their drive is fraught with complicated questions about the “global war on terrorism,’’ its open-ended nature, and the unpopular conflicts it spawned. In all, nearly 6,800 American soldiers have died since 2001 — more than 4,400 in Iraq and nearly 2,300 in Afghanistan.

Even though John Hart died a decade ago, the larger mission for which he sacrificed his life remains an unsettled, controversial chapter in American life.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File

Private First Class John D. Hart died when his unit was ambushed in Iraq in 2003.

“There is no great icon of victory because there is no clear victory in either war,” said Brian Hart. “There are iconic images of how these wars started, but not how they were fought or how they ended, if they ended at all.”

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That is not deterring the Harts or others across the country who are starting to raise private donations, build grass-roots support, and seek sponsors in Congress, which to their frustration has yet to wade into the highly charged issue.

One organization is the National Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Memorial, a nonprofit group in West Virginia that has set a five-year goal to have a memorial dedicated in Washington.

‘We haven’t established anything for the people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.’

Sanford Walters, National Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Memorial 
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“We haven’t progressed very far,” acknowledged Sanford Walters, a board member of the group, which was established in 2011.

But Walters, who served as an infantry officer in Vietnam, said he and his son, Nicholas, were drawn to the cause because of the touchstone that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has been for him and others who served in Southeast Asia.

“We had our reunions in D.C. so we could go to the Wall and pay tribute to those who didn’t make it,” Walters said. “It is a very moving thing to have a special place to go. We haven’t established anything for the people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I had one tour, these people have had multiple tours.”

Establishing a national memorial also is part of the broader policy agenda of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the largest post-9/11 veterans group.

But its leaders acknowledge they are just beginning what promises to be a multiyear struggle, one that could prove more controversial and challenging than even the movement to establish the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was completed in 1982.

For one, the unsettled nature of the recent conflicts — particularly the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan — runs up against the laws now governing when national war memorials can be erected.

The Commemorative Works Act of 1986 stipulates monuments cannot be erected until the conflict is over for at least 10 years.

Timothy Nosal, a spokesman for the American Battle Monuments Commission, which helped oversee the construction of memorials for World War II as well as the wars in Korea and Vietnam, said the waiting period is designed to ensure sufficient time for proper reflection on a conflict’s place in American history.

“You have to see what happens with the history and how the history sorts itself out,” said Nosal, an Iraq war veteran.

But how do you measure the completion of conflicts that were framed by political leaders as part of a wider struggle against Islamist terrorism, a mission with no clear ending?

“What are you memorializing? That is your basic issue,” said Jan Scruggs, one of the founders of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial who said he has been consulted by a diverse group about how to organize a post-9/11 war memorial.

For example, if the wars are to be memorialized as part of the larger struggle against Islamist terrorism, questions abound on what to include.

“Are we going all the way back to Beirut” in 1983, when Islamist terrorists killed 241 US Marines, asks Scruggs. “What about [the 1996 bombing in Saudi Arabia of] Khobar Towers” that killed 19 US servicemen? “Or are you just doing the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Should we have one for Iraq and one for Afghanistan? Are you going to [include] Operation Desert Storm,” the first US-led invasion of Iraq in 1991?

Kirk Savage, a professor of architecture at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the history of war memorials, agreed that choosing how to commemorate these modern conflicts will be uniquely vexing.

“If we are talking about the war on terrorism, there is no end date,” said Savage, author of the recent book “Monument Wars.’’

He also predicted the debate will open old wounds about whether the US invasion of Iraq was necessary.

While both conflicts “are clearly intertwined,” Savage said, there is a “huge amount of debate about one being a defensive war, the other a war of choice. All those debates will be dredged up again.”

The United States toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 for providing support to Al Qaeda terrorists who orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and invaded Iraq to topple dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, and most US forces — but perhaps not all — are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of next year.

Bureaucratic and practical obstacles also abound. For one, the National Mall, the carefully planned and landscaped promenade that runs from the US Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and is home to a series of war memorials, is “considered a completed work of art,” said Carol B. Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, which maintains the site.

She said that unless Congress makes an exception, the only available space for a new memorial would be park land along the Potomac River, adjacent to the Tidal Basin.

Many advocates, including the Harts, view that site as too obscure.

Getting the different organizers to settle on a single vision that Congress can approve will also be a challenge.

That could be further complicated by the various efforts to erect local monuments in states including Massachusetts, Kansas, Virginia, New York, Kentucky, and California.

Veterans of World War I never got a national memorial, mainly because they could not agree on a single proposal, according to Savage.

Yet the Harts are undaunted. They have scored big victories in Washington: after their son’s death they teamed up with the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy to lobby for better equipment for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They think it would be a mistake to make a new generation of veterans wait decades for recognition like veterans of World War II, who didn’t get a memorial in Washington for 60 years.

“Assuming the Afghan war concludes near the end of 2014, and it takes 10 years for approval on the Mall, then that’s 2025,” said Brian Hart. “So the war that started in 2001 will be a quarter-century old, and John, who was killed in Iraq in] 2003 at age 20, will be gone 23 years. His peers will be 45 to 50 years old and their parents will be elderly by the time a memorial is built for their children.”

Scruggs, who served as a corporal in Vietnam, said he believes the veterans of America’s post-9/11 wars need a memorial as much or more than his generation did.

“The only people who are suffering are the ones who went over there and what they need is the type of national recognition a national memorial brings,” he said. “Most people want to forget these wars.”

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.
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