“Freedom is Not Free” Remembering Why at the Korean War Veterans Memorial


Nineteen figures, dressed in combat uniforms and moving in formation, cut a silent, ghostly silhouette against the seasonal colors of the National Mall.  Tall in stature and gray in color, these figures represent an American infantry unit from the Korean War.  

The statues are the most prominent feature of the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Sitting just to the southeast of the Lincoln Memorial, it is one of the National Mall’s most intriguing sites. 

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces of the Korean People’s Army, with the backing of Soviet and Chinese leaders, poured over the 38th parallel, attacking south with the goal of reuniting a divided Korea under the leadership of Kim Il Sung. Within 48 hours, the United States committed air and sea forces to the defense of South Korea. On June 27, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 83, calling on “Members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack…”. 

Fighting would last 38 months, during the years from 1950-1953. United Nations forces were able to repel the initial North Korean invasion. The last two years was largely a stalemate, even though there was fierce fighting and direct engagement between US and Chinese ground troops. An armistice halting the fighting was signed on July 27, 1953 in Panmunjom, Korea.

By the end of hostilities, over 5.8 million Americans served in the US armed forces and 36,574 Americans died as a result of hostile actions in the Korean War theater.  In addition, 103,284 were wounded during the conflict. Losses were especially high among the Korean combatants. Over 162,000 South Korean soldiers and 526,000 North Korean soldiers were killed. Civilian deaths during the Korean War on both sides are estimated at between 2-3 million. 

The details of the Korean War may not be known to many of the visitors, but the memorial vividly weaves together symbolism and imagery to portray the conflict’s sacrifices and significance.  

An image of a US Navy nurse from the Mural Wall

For full effect, the statues should be viewed in conjunction with the Mural Wall, which adds a unique, two dimensional feature to the memorial. The 164-foot long wall is constructed of a highly polished black granite and stands to the statues’ right side. It bears the images of over 2,400 troops and different specialties from each branch of the Armed Forces that supported the infantry during the Korean War. Both the faces of the statues and the visages on the wall are based on actual Korean War veterans, taken from photographs supplied by the National Archives and Records Administration and other renderings. Viewed from a distance, the service member images on the wall resemble the mountains of Korea.  The wall vividly reflects the statues, suggesting 38 servicemen moving in formation and symbolizing the 38th parallel and the 38 months of the war.

On the left side of the statues is the United Nations curb, a stone edge to a paved walkway with the name of the 22 Countries that, like the United States, fought or provided material support in Korea under the auspices of the United Nations.  

An engraving of the the United Nations seal as depicted on the United Nations Curb.

The statues appear to be moving toward an American flag flying from a flag pole next to a reflecting pool shaded by a grove of linden trees. At the base of the flag pole is a small stone with the inscription “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” 

The pool is inscribed with the numbers of casualties sustained during the war by both the United States and the United Nations. The area is known formally as the Pool of Remembrance; the pool and the adjoining benches shaded by linden trees invites quiet contemplation of the war and its costs. 

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For the United States, the Korean War was unlike any other before it. 

Congress made no declaration of war. Rather, the US fought under the auspices of the new United Nations and provided most of the UN combat forces. The Korean War would be more limited, without the general mobilization of American society as was seen in the First and Second World Wars. A new branch of the armed forces, the US Air Force, would organize and conduct air campaigns.  And for the first time since the American Revolution, the war was fought with a racially integrated military. (Notice the 19 statues represent multiple racial and ethnic groups and all four branches of the armed forces).

Statue depicting a US Air Force Air-Ground Controller

It was also fought in a very far away land, not well known to many Americans, to contain the spread of communism, the growth of which in Eastern Europe and China immediately following World War II was seen as a threat to the American democracy and capitalism. 

The Korean War remains with us today. The armistice of 1953 only ended the fighting, but not formally the war. A demilitarized zone marks the current border between the two Koreas. Tensions remain high. Korea is never very far from the headlines or newsfeeds and remains a major focus of US diplomacy and foreign policy. The US is still committed to the defense of South Korea and maintains a force of approximately 24,000 troops in the country. 

Over 7,600 US service members are still listed by the Pentagon as missing in action. The North Korean government periodically returns remains of US service members. In 2018, 55 boxes of remains were presented to US officials and taken to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii for identification.  Potentially, 80 US service members may be identified from these sets of remains. Some already have. One was US Army Corporal Charles S. Lawler, 19, of Traverse City, Michigan.  Corporal Lawler was a member of the 1st Cavalry Division. He was reported missing in action on Nov. 2, 1950, after his unit was attacked near Unsan, North Korea. He was buried in his hometown on July 27, 2019. 

A group photo from the 8225th M*A*S*H*. The concept of forward deployed military hospitals was successfully implemented during the Korean War.

Popular narratives sometime label the Korean War as “the Forgotten War”, which seems misleading. It certainly was never forgotten by the Korean people, nor by the veterans who fought there and certainly not by the families of those who died there. The US military community has not forgotten as there has been a large military presence in Korea for decades. And the 1968 novel M*A*S*H*, about an Army field hospital which became a successful motion picture, then later a very popular television show, continued to remind the American public of the Korean War.

And now for over a quarter century, an exceptional and dignified memorial stands on the National Mall to help us remember. 


Route Recon:

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is located at the western end of the National Mall. It is two miles walking distance from the U.S. Capitol. A paved footpath connects the Korean War Veterans Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial area. The nearest metro stations are Foggy Bottom (23rd St. &I St. NW) and Smithsonian (12th St. & Independence Ave. SW).

Visitor parking is available along Ohio Drive, SW between the Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson Memorials. 

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is accessible 24 hours a day. Some visitors especially like to visit at night or in foggy or rainy weather, when the statues take on a surreal nature. 

There are many online resources regarding the Korean War. A good place to start is the US Army Center for Military History’s Korean War Commemorative Website .   

One Last Note: The Department of Defense (DoD) currently lists the number of US service members killed during the Korean War as 36,574. For many years, the Department of Defense had listed the number as 54,260, which is the number included on the memorial. Later research conducted by DoD determined the higher number included deaths of US service members who died on active duty during the 38 months of the war, although not necessarily as a result of combat operations in Korea. The higher number is included on the memorial as it honors all US service members who served during the Korean War. 

A Place to Pause and Ponder the Marks of War

One of Washington’s newest memorials is also one of its most unique. Dedicated by President Barak Obama on October 5, 2014, the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial (AVDLM) stands on a wedge-shaped piece of ground in Southwest Washington, D.C., an island of reverence floating amidst a busy bureaucratic sea.

Unlike other monuments found throughout Washington dedicated to individuals, military units or specific wars, this memorial is dedicated to all current and former members of the Armed Forces who have been changed physically or psychologically by war.

The AVDLM was the brainchild of Lois Pope, a Florida philanthropist who was inspired after meeting a disabled veteran at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1995 and realizing no similar monument exited for American service members disabled by war.


She would ultimately team up with then-U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown and Art Wilson, head of the Disabled American Veterans, to spearhead the effort. The three would encounter many challenges and hurdles in building this memorial before realizing their goal, not the least of which was the memorial’s location.

The 1986 Commemorative Works Act provided the National Capital Monuments Commission the authority to approve the sighting for all monuments and memorials on most Federally owned land.

During the review process, the commission found that the AVDLM did not reach the level of prominence necessary to afford it a space on the National Mall. While the AVLDM’s supporters were taken aback by the decision, they selected an alternate location one block south of the Mall, rather than risk a major delay in the project.

A view of the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory (and its reflection) from the memorial.

At first glance, the site might seem an odd location for such a monument. It lies between three busy streets–Washington Avenue, 2nd Street and C Street–amid interchange ramps for arterial highways and next to the Headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services. The Rayburn House Office and other Federal office buildings spread out in the blocks around it. The massive Capitol Power Plant looms large to the south. Pedestrian and vehicle traffic can be heavy in the area.

The U.S. Capitol Dome and the Bartholdi Fountain are both visible from the AVDLM site. The memorial’s planners thought the close proximity of the memorial to the Capitol would remind Congress of their responsibilities regarding war and peace.

After numerous revisions, the final construct combined stone, water, fire, vegetation, and etched glass into multiple design elements which not only mark the physical and psychological impact of war on the veteran, but also the ability of that veteran to emerge from trauma and move forward toward recovery with courage and resolve.

The National Capital Planning Commission’s architectural drawing of the layout of the AVDLM’s final design.  National Capital Planning Commission (June 24, 2010). American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, …  NCPC File No. 6179 (Report). Washington, D.C.: National Capital Planning Commission.

The focal point of the memorial is a star-shaped fountain and triangular reflecting pool. At the center of the fountain is a flame produced by the ignition of gas bubbles floating up through the water. The flame of course recalls the sacrifice of wounded veterans and the effect of the flame rising out of the water is quite enthralling. (Unfortunately, during the colder weather months the fountain is drained and there is no flame).

Along the south side of the memorial (cleverly masking the power plant) are three walls composed of 48 glass panels where the true message of the AVDLM is found in etched images and inscriptions of wounded veterans discussing their duty, the impact of their wounds, what it took to recover, and how they moved forward.

The 18 quotes on the walls were selected from over 600 submitted anonymously to a design panel. Interspersed within the walls are four bronze silhouette sculptures which provide additional visual context to the disabled veteran’s path of pride in their service, trauma, recovery and finding new purpose.

Along the western side of the memorial are two large granite walls bearing two more quotes on the burdens of war and military service by George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Around the memorial are ginkgo and cypress trees and a variety of ornamental bushes and other plants, which add some greenery to the many stone and glass features. The ginkgo trees turn gold each November and will ultimately grow to form a canopy through the memorial.

A ginkgo tree silhouetted by the Department of Health and Human Services next to the memorial.
A bronze silhoutte sculpture within the glass wall.

Throughout the memorial plaza are a myriad of stone benches, inviting the visitor to sit and spend some time letting the memorial’s elements come together – the burning flame, the trickling water, the thoughts and images of the veterans, the names of Washington and Eisenhower, the Capitol Dome, even the traffic and people passing by – to remind us all that the wounded warrior is much more than the wound.

Disability does not define the disabled veteran.

If you cannot come to Washington DC to visit the AVDLM in person, click here for a virtual tour or check out the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial website for a video montage and information about the memorial’s planning and construction.

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The Census Bureau estimates there are approximately 4 million disabled veterans living in the United States today. If after your physical or virtual visit to the AVDLM, you want to lend some of them a hand, there are many organizations who are looking for volunteers with a wide variety of skills to assist in providing professional services, home improvement help, advocacy, fundraising and many other areas.

A few examples include:

  • The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization offers a variety of services to disabled veterans and their families and has many volunteer opportunities.
  • The Fisher House Foundation has a network of homes on the grounds of military and VA hospitals for visiting family members of hospitalized service members and veterans. Fisher House operates the Hero Miles Program, using donated frequent flier miles to bring family members to the hospitals for visits.
  • Building Homes for Heroes builds specially modified homes for disabled veterans that help them live independently. The homes are provided at no cost to the veterans.

ROUTE RECON

The AVDLM is located southwest of the U.S. Capitol and south of the U.S. Botanic Gardens. The Street address is 150 Washington Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20024. The memorial is accessible from the Capitol South and Federal Center Southwest Metro Stations (on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines).  There is very limited street parking in the immediate area.

MESS CALL

There are a number of eating establishments in the blocs to the west of the AVDLM. One locally owned favorite is the 2 Sisters Deli at 400 C Street SW. The deli features tasty and generously sized sandwiches at a reasonable (for DC anyway) price. And the staff is friendly.

75 Years After Pearl Harbor, the Taney Still Serves

What better way to observe the 75th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor than to visit the last U.S. ship afloat which saw action on that fateful December morning.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney is moored about 40 miles north of Washington, D.C. The Taney is part of the Historic Ships in Baltimore, a floating museum of notable ships from our nation’s naval and maritime heritage.

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U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney (WHEC-37)

The Taney (pronounced TAW-ney) was one of seven Coast Guard vessels in the Treasury class of High Endurance Cutters. The Treasury Class would be known for their ability to perform many different types of missions and their many years of service to the Coast Guard. The Taney was built in Philadelphia and launched in 1936. She was assigned to Honolulu from 1936 through 1941 where she undertook missions familiar to today’s Coast Guard: law enforcement, maritime patrols, and search and rescue, among others.

pearl-harbor-poster_travel-objective-dcOn the morning of December 7, 1941, the Taney was moored in Honolulu Harbor, about eight miles away from Pearl Harbor. While not directly attacked that day, she did engage Japanese aircraft in her vicinity.

In the war’s early years, the Taney stayed in the Pacific, conducting maritime patrols, pilot rescues, and counter-submarine operations.

From 1943-1944, the Taney served in the Atlantic theater, performing convoy escort duty between the U.S. and Europe, and engaging German planes in the Mediterranean. In late 1944 the Taney was converted to an Amphibious Command Ship and returned to the Pacific. She was Rear Admiral Calvin Cobb’s flagship at the battle of Okinawa where her crew served with great distinction defending her from more than 250 attacks by Japanese aircraft.

After the war, the Taney returned to peacetime missions: reporting weather conditions, conducting search and rescue missions, and supporting law enforcement operations. From 1946-1972, the Taney was based at Alameda, California.

img_5794The Taney also participated in the Viet Nam War. From 1969-1970, she patrolled the waters off Viet Nam, supporting naval bombardments, preventing enemy resupply operations and providing medical assistance to South Vietnamese nationals.

In 1972, she was transferred to the east coast, continuing her peacetime missions, as well as serving as a training ship for Coast Guard cadets and officer candidates.

The Taney was decommissioned in 1986 and transferred to the City of Baltimore as a museum ship.

After 50 years of service to the Coast Guard, the Taney certainly lived up to her designation as a “High Endurance” cutter.

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Today the Taney is found on Pier 5 of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Climb aboard, walk the decks, explore the berths and you get a sense of the rhythm of mid-20th century “Coastie” life.

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A blue line with arrows painted on the deck guides you through the living quarters, dining areas and work spaces. Placards and actual shipboard notices to the crew, dating from the 1980’s, explain how crewmembers spent their days moving between duty, meals, hygiene and sleep with long hours of routine punctuated by brief periods of white knuckle danger, recreational diversions or just a few peaceful moments to observe a Pacific sunset.

Available space is tight on the 327-foot-long cutter, so privacy was clearly a luxury reserved for the Taney’s senior officers, especially when the size of the crew doubled to over 250 personnel during World War II. There are also special exhibits devoted to the attack at Pearl Harbor and the Taney’s service in Viet Nam.

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img_5785Younger visitors can learn about the Taney’s Mascot “Soogie”, a dog who sailed on board from 1937 until 1948.

Paw prints on the floor direct kids to information kiosks with details about this Coastie canine and his life at sea.

In recognition of her service at Pearl Harbor, each year on December 7 at 12:00 noon, the Historic Ships in Baltimore hosts a memorial ceremony on board the Taney. The event is free and open to the public.

But any season is a good time of year to visit the Taney and learn her stories. A few hours on board and you can’t help but develop a healthy respect for the ship and the crew members who sailed her through a half century of service to the United States.

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