Scuba divers took the first official plunge to explore the new Circle of Heroes memorial in the Gulf of Mexico on Monday.
Project organizers say the underwater memorial honoring U.S. veterans is the first of its kind in the nation.
The memorial is located about ten miles off the coast of Clearwater at a depth of 40 feet.
It consists of 12 life-sized concrete statues representing men and women in the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy.
At Monday’s dedication ceremony, a crowd of elected leaders, veterans and their families cheered as a ribbon was cut between two boats to “open” the memorial. It’s paid for with a mix of private donations and public funding from Pinellas County.
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Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel says the site is meant for tourists as well as therapy programs that take vets with PTSD or other injuries scuba diving.
"Not only will this new memorial be a premier international diving destination, but it will also serve as a place where veterans with physical and mental injuries can heal,” she said.
Vietnam vet Dave Miller said he wishes that kind of opportunity was available to him when he got back from the war.
He volunteers as the National American Legion Hospital representative at Bay Pines VA and said the dive site will be great for the vets he works with now.
"We help a lot of young vets coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq and we're trying to get them off all the opiates, all the medications they're getting put on,” he said. “A lot of them seek other help for rehab, and this diving system they'll be able to dive here is a wonderful place."
Twelve more statues will be added to the memorial in 2020 to complete the 100-foot Circle of Heroes.
Project organizers said the first phase cost about $200,000, including the statues themselves, the barge used to lower them into place and other expenses. They estimate the second phase will cost $350,000 as all the new statues will be custom made.
You can learn more about the memorial and how to get involved with the project here.