TAMPA (FOX 13) - On October 7, 2001, the United States entered into the war in Afghanistan. Sixteen years later, the U.S. is still embroiled in the conflict that has become American’s longest-running war.
Thousands of U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, among them: 151 Floridians, including 16 soldiers from Hillsborough County. Now, thanks to the efforts of one Gold Star mother, the names of Florida soldiers, who left for Afghanistan in uniform and returned home draped in our flag, have been immortalized.
“My son was killed in 2010 and this memorial is built in his memory and all the soldiers who were killed in Operation Enduring Freedom,” said Annette Kirk, whose son, PFC Paul Cuzzupe II was killed in action on August 8, 2010. He was 23. “They were actually coming back from their mission when they ran over a 250-pound IED.”
On Saturday, Gold Star families gathered at Veterans Memorial Park in Tampa for the dedication of the new Afghanistan War Memorial. Its walls bear the names of 151 fallen Floridians and the faces of 16 Hillsborough County soldiers.
The memorial’s design was inspired by photos Paul sent to his mother while serving in Afghanistan. It has been constructed to look like a guard tower, replete with HESCO barriers.
“The HESCO barrier is really what keeps the war fighter safe. It makes it so we can go anywhere in the world, no matter how rural it is, and set up a base and protect our forces. These HESCO barriers you see on it are actual real HESCO, they were donated to us by the company,” explained Mark Goujon, and Iraq War veteran who played an integral role in the creation of Veterans Memorial Parks’ Iraq and Afghanistan was memorials. “We’re excited to have that as part of the memorial so we can really capture the feel. When Operation Enduring Freedom veterans show up they can kind of go into this and see what they saw when they were over there.”
Gen. Joseph Votel, Commander of United States Central Command, assured friends, loved ones and family members attending the dedication ceremony that the fallen hadn’t died in vain.
“Since 2001 the United States has not suffered a major attack emanating from that part of the world. This is significant. It is due in large part to the efforts of everyone who has served in Afghanistan. Because of their hard work, the situation there is now vastly different from when we started our mission,” said Votel. “Since 2001 we’ve deposed the Taliban. We’ve killed Osama Bin Laden. We’ve built up the Afghan national and security forces and we’ve helped Afghanistan establish the beginnings of a democratic process and the structure to help them rejoin the fold of the international community.
“I stand here before you today and tell you with confidence that the accomplishments of our fallen heroes will live on. I wish that I could stand up here and also tell you today that the mission in Afghanistan is finished, but it is not. Unfortunately, these remain challenging times and we have a sacred duty and responsibility to the American people to ensure an attack on the scale of 9-11 will never happen again.
“What I will emphasize to you is this: the brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice made our nation safer and gave us the opportunity to see our mission through.”