Brennan, who lost several friends in one of the deadliest helicopter crashes of the Afghanistan war, felt a sudden sense of purpose: build a memorial on the Mall for post-9/11 vets.
“I wanted my generation to have that same healing that the Wall gave to Vietnam Vets,” Brennan said, recalling that day in 2014.
Brennan, 31, quickly formed a nonprofit group, the Global War On Terror Memorial Foundation, and started assembling a team that includes former military commander and CIA director Gen. David Petraeus, and Jan Scruggs, the man who conceived the idea to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. He is also rallying support in Congress.
Brennan has been lobbying lawmakers, military officials and others for what some say is an uphill battle: a new memorial on the nation’s front lawn, even though there is a law banning new memorials there.
Memorials are built to remember people and events, but the nation’s efforts to ferret out and eliminate terrorist networks are ongoing. In fact, there is a law that requires a conflict be over for 10 years before a national commemorative work can be considered.
The group wants to change the law to allow for the consideration of a memorial in the case of conflicts that extend beyond a decade.
There are other complications, as well. The phrase “War on Terror” is contentious. Coined and popularized by President George W. Bush, the name has been derided by those who say the U.S. fight is with specific terror networks. The Obama administration largely retired the phrase.
Brennan, however, notes that the phrase “Global War on Terrorism” is written on service medals authorized by the Department of Defense. And he says the men and women who fought deserve recognition.
In many ways, this is a war of firsts: the country’s first all-volunteer military campaign, the first time American women have served in combat, the first time service members have faced so much upheaval in their lives, enduring multiple redeployments. It is the first time U.S. service members have fought abroad in response to terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, on 9/11.
U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Department of Defense records, total nearly 7,000 dead and more than 50,000 wounded.
Petraeus, the retired general who commanded forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, supports the memorial. “I understand the criticism of the term ‘war on terror’ very well. And I am certainly not wedded to it,” he said in an email. “The key is to have a memorial to the service and sacrifice of those who served in the wars of the post-9/11 period.”
Brennan knows this sacrifice. As he went through training in Fort Polk, La., a warrant officer told him that the trauma of war is different for the aviation community than it is for ground troops. Aviators often do not witness death in the same way; they wake one morning to suddenly find the guy in the cot next to them isn’t there.
Sure enough, many months later, in August 2011, Brennan left his tent one morning to find the U.S. flag flying at half-staff. Then someone told him: After midnight, a Chinook helicopter had been shot down. Thirty Americans died that day, along with seven Afghan soldiers and an interpreter. One of them was pilot Bryan Nichols, one of Brennan’s friends whom he had worked with to plan raids and supply missions.
“I wear a KIA, Killed In Action bracelet for him,” said Brennan. “Every day.”
Within a few weeks of starting a campaign for the memorial, Brennan had called old West Point classmates, vets he’d fought beside, anyone he could think of, to make the new memorial a reality. But the key figure he encountered was Scruggs, the founding member of the team that got the Vietnam Veterans Memorial built in just a few years.
As soon as he had the idea, he started trying to reach Scruggs directly. No luck. But about a year later, Scruggs wrote an article in the Military Times saying someone should build a memorial commemorating the post-9/11 conflicts: “Who will step forward?” he wrote.
Brennan, a West Point grad now studying for an MBA at the University of Pittsburgh, had already built a full Ops plan, 10 years out, describing everything from forming his nonprofit and its board, through the moment the National Park Service would take ownership of the memorial.
Scruggs was impressed, and started serving as Brennan’s mentor. He advised the younger vet to start seeking higher-ranking names for his board, people like Petraeus, retired Army Gen. George W. Casey and retired Marine Gen. James T. Conway, and even supplied their email addresses. “Write them,” Scruggs suggested, “and CC me.”
Today, all three serve on Brennan’s advisory board.
The process to build a memorial is long. The National World War II Memorial on the Mall opened roughly 60 years after that war ended. Korean war vets waited 42 years. But in hindsight, those waits seem grossly long, Brennan said. He hopes his effort will not take as long to become a reality.
His group has the backing of, among others, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), a former Navy Seal who fought in Iraq. Zinke is also a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees national parkland.
“The War on Terror started 15 years ago, and yet we are unable to build a memorial because of government regulations that stipulate when and where a memorial can be built,” Zinke said in an email. “That’s not right. It’s a disservice to the warriors and to the families. ”
Legislators have declared the Mall to be a “substantially completed work of civic art,” preventing the approval of new memorials there.
But organizers say placing the memorial on the Mall is important. Visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial can’t help but understand that war’s cost — in the list of names of the dead, spanning the Wall’s length, and in the offerings that are left there, from teddy bears to letters for the deceased. Visitors coming to the Mall to see a post-9/11 Memorial should come face-to-face with veterans and families and witness the depth of their grief, they said.
As Brennan and all deployed soldiers know, coming home isn’t easy. After being in combat, many soldiers find civilian life difficult. For many, the word “service” takes on a spiritual quality, as a guidepost.
Brennan came home from Afghanistan in October 2011, and tried to get on with civilian life as best he could. But he had, as he puts it, “re-entry issues.”
At 26, he’d already served as an Army captain, responsible for the lives of his soldiers and significant military assets, like Blackhawk helicopters. He’d plotted and planned supply drops and assaults on the enemy. But back home, his days were consumed by planning logistics for Best Buy, where he’d been recently hired.
“It didn’t exactly move the needle for me,” he said.
He didn’t feel the same passion he felt in the military until that day he saw Rolling Thunder come through Albuquerque in 2014, when he saw the many Iraq and Afghanistan vets riding with Vietnam veterans on their way to the Vietnam Memorial.
“I thought,” he said, “‘Where can we ride?’”
This story has been updated.
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