Veterans and Gold Star families march down the National Mall to mark the advancement of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial

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Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Alston Arrechaga, 13, leads the ruck with Rod Rodriguez. They started at the Lincoln Memorial and ended near the U.S. Capitol.

It was still dark out Thursday morning when about two dozen veterans, Gold Star families, and members of Congress gathered at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. A fine mist blanketed the area, as the sun slowly began to peep above the horizon. 

But the crowd gathered didn’t mind the early hour or damp weather. They were just glad that the bill giving the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) Memorial a place on the National Mall has been signed into law. They came to mark the occasion with a Ruck on the Reserve — a brisk walk across the length of the Mall while carrying a heavy backpack.

The Reserve is the part of the Mall that has been declared off-limits for further monuments. However, the new law will allow the GWOT memorial to be built there, something these families fought hard for.

“A lot of us put a lot of hours into making calls and writing letters and telling [lawmakers] why we think it is important,” said Seana Arrechaga. “It was like a full-time job I didn’t get paid for. So this memorial is going to be my payment.”

Her husband, SFC Ofren Arrechaga, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011, during his fourth deployment. For her, the future memorial is all the more meaningful because Ofren, who was originally from Cuba, received his U.S citizenship during his 3rd deployment. The ceremony was in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Iraq.

“To be the family of an immigrant, who volunteered for a country he didn’t come (from), and to know that he’s going to be honored here, it makes, I don’t know, it makes me happy,” she said.

She was also happy their son Alston got to lead off the ruck, carrying the U.S. flag the group would follow down the Mall.

What many considered a 'slam dunk' took longer than expected

“I thought (the memorial location) would be a slam dunk. I thought it would be easy. But obviously, it’s taken a long time,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin. 

He’s a veteran himself and introduced the bill to establish a memorial his first term in Congress. He added he’s now come to appreciate the sometimes-frustrating process of legislating.

“People argue — (and) work together — in order to determine the best way forward for Americans to pursue happiness."

When Colorado Rep. Jason Crow, also a veteran, entered Congress, the two worked on the bill that would locate the memorial on the Mall. For the ruck, they were joined by its Senate sponsors, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, as well as Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas and Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa.

Crow said it’s right that the nation honor those who served in America’s longest war with a special location in the nation’s capital, “‘cause what this reserve, what this mall, has proven generation after generation, is that place has a healing power.”

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
The Farmer family leads the ruck by holding the flag as they approach the U.S. Capitol.

A place of remembrance and honoring those who served

The memorial will also be a place of remembrance, especially for future generations. That’s why Tabitha Farmer brought her family from Tennessee to be here. 

“It’s for my kids, not for me. And it’s for them to show their kids.”

She watched as her 7-year-old twins had fun marching ahead in the loose-knit column with Ernst, while her two teens stuck closer by. Her family was chosen to hold the flag at the end of the ruck. Her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan Robert Farmer, was killed in action in 2019. He was a Green Beret and, as Farmer said, they’re known for keeping quiet about the job. But she doesn’t want to keep quiet about honoring those who have served.

“This is something that we need to be loud about. And I think my husband would be extremely proud, especially of my children,” she said, “because he loved our country so much and he always put everyone before him and I know he’d just be extremely proud of everybody’s efforts.”

Farmer also understands the power of a memorial. Her father fought in Vietnam, and she was with him when he saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the first time.

“I remember him touching the wall where his captain’s name is, and just breaking down.”

Reminding the public of the human cost of war

Marching nearby was Bob Sandri, a Gold Star father. His eldest son, Sgt. Matthew Sandri, was a combat medic with the 82nd airborne and Sunday will mark the 18th anniversary of his death in Iraq. Sgt. Sandri is buried across the river in Arlington National cemetery. His father thinks many Americans don’t want to be reminded of the human cost of the Global War on Terror, that they find death an uncomfortable subject.

“So to me the importance of this monument being constructed is that all Americans realize and remember what we’ve asked these young men and women to do for these last 20 years,” he said.

And that’s also, in part, what drives Michael “Rod” Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation.

“We all enjoy safety, security, freedom because of these brave men and women and it is our duty to honor that. Because if we don’t honor that and show that to them, who’s going to do that in the future?”

Whether it be to educate the public, gather with other veterans, or remember loved ones, many at the ruck said they look forward to the day when they can visit the memorial itself.

“We will continue to march on the Mall until we see this memorial built,” said Ernst.

The location bill, which passed as part of the NDAA, was the last legislative hurdle. Now the foundation will work with the different commissions and the National Park Service on finding the precise location and design for the memorial.