The long-running effort to establish a National Desert Storm and Desert Shield Memorial in Washington, D.C., just off the National Mall passed a major milestone Thursday with a groundbreaking ceremony. But it was possible only because of a funding boost from Kuwait when private donations fell short.
"It's been a lot of heartache, a lot of disappointment," Scott Stump, CEO of the National Desert Storm War Memorial Association, told Military.com before the ceremony. The group has faced headwinds in raising funds and working through the complicated approval process.
At the groundbreaking ceremony at the memorial's new official address -- 2300 Constitution Avenue -- Stump acknowledged to hundreds of supporters in attendance that "the road getting here has been fraught with obstacles and impediments."
He thanked Kuwait's ambassador to the U.S., Sheikh Salem Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, for his country's pledge of funding that helped save the memorial project. In his own remarks, the ambassador said the memorial "will forever evoke and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice to give Kuwaitis their homeland back."
The tentative design for the memorial would be semicircular to recall the "left hook" by U.S. ground forces through the Saudi desert to cut off Iraqi troops in Desert Storm.
The U.S.-led mission to expel Iraqi invaders from Kuwait began on Jan. 17, 1991, with a massive aerial and naval bombardment that lasted five weeks, followed by a ground assault that lasted 100 hours until Iraq capitulated.
During the air and ground combat, a total of 96 U.S. troops were killed in action, two died of wounds and another 105 were listed as nonhostile deaths, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
The biggest applause at the ceremony went to retired Army Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, who was a major during Desert Storm serving as a flight surgeon with the 229th Aviation Regiment.
On Feb. 27, 1991, Cornum was in a Black Hawk helicopter on a mission to rescue a downed F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot when her aircraft came under fire and crashed, killing five members of the crew and leaving her with two broken arms, a broken finger and a bullet wound in her back.
She suffered mock executions and a sexual assault while a prisoner, but "the most important thing -- I never, not for a single minute, thought I was going to be abandoned up there. I was sure I was … not going to languish in prison like the guys in Vietnam," Cornum said in her remarks. She ultimately was released on March 5, 1991, after the war ended.
In seeking to put the Gulf War in perspective, Cornum said, "One thing stands out: It was a demonstration of all the good things that can happen when there's an unambiguous and moral mission like liberating Kuwait."
"I hope this memorial will teach people and remind them that we shouldn't judge a war by how many people die in it and how long it takes," said Cornum, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. "We should judge the importance of a war by what's at stake and what's accomplished."
The National Desert Storm War Memorial Association, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit, began lobbying for the memorial in 2011 and won initial approval when then-President Barack Obama signed legislation in 2014.
Then in 2017, President Donald Trump signed off on a site for the memorial that is not technically on the National Mall but is still in a prime location off Constitution Avenue, about 300 yards from the Lincoln Memorial and across a driveway from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The plan was to have a dedication ceremony for the completed memorial in 2021, the 30th anniversary of the swift U.S.-led coalition victory over the forces of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to liberate Kuwait. But in June 2019, Stump said during an event at the National Press Club that the association was about $32 million short of its $40 million fundraising goal.
Unless funding picked up, the risk would be that Desert Storm would become not a "forgotten war" but a "forgotten victory," Stump said.
Then in March of this year, Kuwait pledged whatever funding was necessary to complete the memorial. "Kuwait is very proud to be the major donor to the construction of this memorial," the Kuwaiti ambassador said in a statement at the time.
Stump, who served as a Marine lance corporal with 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, in the 1991 campaign that drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait, declined to reveal how much money Kuwait pledged but said it was "sufficient for us to move forward."
The plan now is to have a dedication ceremony for the memorial on Veterans Day 2024, he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.