Colorado’s Fallen Heroes war memorial opened ahead of Veteran’s Day. This is how it came to be built

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Colorado Fallen Heroes Memorial on November 6, 2021, in Lincoln Veterans Memorial Park just west of the State Capitol in Denver.

Colorado’s newest monument honoring fallen soldiers officially opened ahead of Veterans Day this year. The structure, designed as a vacant tomb, is set on the state Capitol grounds in Denver.

The Colorado Fallen Heroes Memorial is meant to recognize all Coloradans killed during major 20th and 21st century conflicts. Plaques on its stone facade carry no names, just the start and end dates of World War I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The memorial’s opening marks the end of a 14-year planning effort. Its proposal outlasted two governors and came just before the end of the country’s longest war. 

Planning started in 2007, when then-Gov. Bill Ritter signed a bill endorsing the creation of a memorial to honor fallen Colorado service members. The bill did not allocate funds to build the site, but it did establish a commission charged with designing a memorial.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Cadets from the Civil Air Patrol at the formal dedication of the Colorado Fallen Heroes Memorial on November 6, 2021, in Lincoln Veterans Memorial Park just west of the State Capitol in Denver.

Funding quickly emerged as the main obstacle, as the commission struggled to find enough. 

Several years into development, the state legislature transferred planning responsibilities over to a non-profit group started by local gold star families, which is named after the memorial. 

Rebecca Kim was one of the organization's leaders. She got involved with the effort after her brother, an Army ranger, was killed while serving in Iraq. 

“I thought having a memorial for our fallen [soldiers] at our Capitol was incredibly important,” Kim said. “I think it sends an incredible message that Colorado supports and honors its military and recognizes the sacrifice that many pay.” 

Kim and other volunteers spent several years fundraising. In 2019, a Denver-based home builder finally donated enough money to complete the monument’s design and construction. 

The planning group worked with the same architects and construction company that built the nearby Colorado Veterans Monument, a red sandstone obelisk modeled after the Washington Monument. 

The Fallen Heroes memorial was originally scheduled to open in 2020, but was delayed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a vandalism incident. 

Repairs took roughly a year, due to supply chain shortages, Kim said. But on a recent sunny Saturday, veterans, Gold Star families and Colorado politicians gathered to dedicate the memorial.  Volunteers joined local students to hang ornaments on nearby trees, each carrying the name and biography of a fallen soldier. For Kim, seeing the site finally open after so long was a surreal moment. 

“I was grateful,” Kim said. “It looked absolutely beautiful.” 

Planning for large public monuments typically takes years. A similar effort is being made to build a national monument honoring people who served during the Global War on Terror.

Democratic Colorado Rep. Jason Crow is co-sponsor of a bill aiming to build the monument along the National Mall in Washington. The legislation passed the House, but the idea has gotten pushback from some veterans and government agencies. 

“We think the time is right for this,” Crow, himself a veteran, said. “We don’t want to wait 40 or 50 years.” 

Funding for the proposal is included in the proposed national defense spending bill, which still needs confirmation in the U.S. Senate. 

“We could have this piece of planning done by the end of this year,” Crow said.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Military jets fly in formation over at the dedication of the Colorado Fallen Heroes Memorial on November 6, 2021, in Lincoln Veterans Memorial Park just west of the State Capitol in Denver.

For now, Coloradans can visit the new Fallen Heroes monument in Denver free of charge. It’s open to the public seven days a week. 

The memorial will be maintained and updated by the non-profit run by Kim and other gold star families. The group is currently working on updating the plaque honoring soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan, now that the U.S. has officially withdrawn from the country. 

“Our memorial is all about never forgetting,” Kim said. “Even though that conflict has been finalized, the sacrifice and our honor is not finalized.”