By Matt Pearson, AIA
U.S. Navy SEAL history began in 1942 in Virginia Beach, Va., when volunteers for World War II special missions came together to train and later distinguishing themselves in combat during Operation Torch in North Africa.
While the Virginia Beach boardwalk is lined with sculptures, statues, monuments and memorials, no public tribute honoring the Navy SEALs and their forerunners could be found along the popular oceanfront and tourist destination filled with hotels, restaurants, and passerby attractions.
In 2016, the concept for a monument honoring the Navy’s warrior elite began to take shape. Capt. Rick Woolard, USN (Ret.), a Virginia Beach resident and former SEAL, thought it was long overdue to create a monument unlike any other, along the Virginia Beach oceanfront. With Capt. Woolard spearheading the effort on behalf of the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Fla., the project built strong support from the Mayor of Virginia Beach, the Virginia Beach Fine Arts Commission, the Navy SEAL Foundation, the UDT-SEAL Association, and the SEAL active duty and retired communities. Still, many pieces needed to come together to make the monument a reality.
Capt. Woolard’s vision gained momentum after the City of Virginia Beach donated land for the hollowed site on the boardwalk, facing the Atlantic Ocean. National architecture and engineering firm, Clark Nexsen, was tapped to lead the design, and given its long-term involvement in federal work, and having many employees and family members with ties to the military, saw an opportunity to give back to the community by providing all design services on a pro bono basis.
After a Memorandum of Understanding between the SEAL Museum and the city was reached, the Virginia Beach City Council gave unanimous approval to build the monument. Private donations—both monetary and materials for construction—funded a majority of the project.
The design would not have been possible without the contributions from material suppliers and financial donations from around the world. Stone, concrete pavers, 88,000-lb of granite, lighting, metal fabrication, and surveying, design and construction were either partially or fully donated. A 6,000-lb donor slab bearing the names of over 850 names of private donors and companies anchors the north end of the monument’s design.
DESIGNING THE MONUMENT
The Clark Nexsen design team was inspired to create a unique monument that honors the SEALs, their forerunners, and the critical role Virginia Beach played in their history. This project would be the first public monument honoring all SEAL Teams, so the importance of properly telling their story and their evolution to today through the design was tantamount.
Central to the monument’s design stands the iconic Naked Warrior statue. The Naked Warrior depicts an early “frogman” atop a beach obstacle, facing the ocean and gathering himself to conduct a combat mission. The statue is the fourth and final bronze cast to be made. Three other statues reside at their respective SEAL heritage sites: Fort Pierce; Coronado, Calif.; and Waimanalo Beach, Hawaii. The bronze statue is purposefully life-sized, rather than larger than life. It is a subtle tribute to the SEAL mindset that they are ordinary men who do extraordinary things.
Central to the monument’s design stands the iconic Naked Warrior statue. The Naked Warrior depicts an early “frogman” atop a beach obstacle, facing the ocean and gathering himself to conduct a combat mission.
Aligned with this ethos, the statue is surrounded by a sleek, low-profile stone “history wall” that curves along the natural contours of the site. From one end of the monument to the other, the history wall begins with the Scouts and Raiders—the forerunners of the SEALs— and leads visitors around to the modern day warrior elite. Distinguished from the other SEAL heritage sites, the Virginia Beach monument is an extensive monument design that utilizes the full site and portrays a comprehensive history with the Naked Warrior statue as its culmination.
Throughout the design process, close collaboration with Capt. Woolard and additional representatives from the SEAL community led to the integration of design elements that honor tactical contributions from around the world and demonstrate their global reach. Tom Hawkins, a retired SEAL and a well-recognized and greatly respected SEAL historian, provided text for the historical-era inscriptions. The images and text highlight traits like honor and valor through self-sacrifice and the love for one’s country. The design provides visitors the opportunity to engage with the monument and gain new insight into the role this elite force plays in protecting the United States.
The main wall, acting as a backdrop to the Naked Warrior, bears the insignias of the major special warfare commands that organize, train, equip, deploy, and sustain the SEAL Teams, SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams, and other units that make up Naval Special Warfare.
Sand from more than 100 beaches around the world where SEALs and their antecedents trained, fought, and bled, surround the statue’s base. This feature will continue to evolve as a “living beach” with public ceremonies, where sand is added to the base of the monument by various participants connected with the teams, along with discrete and anonymous additions from active duty SEAL Team members.
The monument also features 293 gold stars for every Navy SEAL who has been killed in the line of duty and nine gold K-9 paw prints for fallen war dogs.
The monument’s design has transformed an overgrown and outdated site into a meaningful and patriotic tribute. The design seeks to engage the site and natural topography, serving as a transition point from the upper plaza to the lower boardwalk. The heavily trafficked thoroughfare allows both the well-intentioned visitor and passerby to engage with the monument.
BRONZE, GRANITE & ROLLING THUNDER
World-class artisans and fabricators applied their craftsmanship to the creation of the monument. From the metal fabrication and stone work, to the laser etching and gold leafing, the monument’s success is closely linked to their commitment to design excellence and the pride they took in their work. The Atelier of Seward Johnson carefully sculpted the Naked Warrior statue. It was then cast in bronze by the Deep in the Heart Foundry in Bastrop, Texas, and shipped to Laser Imaging in Lebanon, Ohio for final modifications.
More than 88,000-lb of black granite were quarried and shaped from a remote region of China where some of the worlds darkest granite can be found. Dark granite is essential so that the contrasted laser etchings and text are the most legible to the viewer.
From the metal fabrication and stone work, to the laser etching and gold leafing, the monument’s success is closely linked to their commitment to design excellence and the pride they took in their work.
Ready for installation, the heavy load of etched granite made its way from Ohio to the construction site in Virginia Beach on July 10, 2017. The Virginia Patriot Guard escort linked up with the two freightliner flatbeds carrying the granite in Newport News.
Guarded by city police, firetrucks and more than 300 motorcycles, the granite made its journey to the project site at 38th Street and the boardwalk. During the escort, there was no point when the end of the “Rolling Thunder” could see the beginning. Approaching the oceanfront site, two Virginia Beach Fire Department hook and ladder trucks draped a large American flag for the escort to roll under as hundreds of tourists and locals stood watch by.
A FITTING DEDICATION
The monument, completed less than nine months after it entered the city’s approval process, is the result of a vision and close collaboration between the design team, the SEAL Museum, and the City of Virginia Beach.
On July 20, 2017, the Navy SEAL Monument was dedicated and officially turned over to Virginia Beach. A crowd of more than 2,000 people gathered for the occasion. Elected officials, astronauts, Medal of Honor recipients, and SEALs from all eras, came together to honor, reflect and take part in the ceremony. Capt. Woolard hopes the monument will stand proudly for generations to come—providing visitors the opportunity to engage with the monument and gain new insights into the role that this elite force plays in protecting our nation.
Said Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski, USN, Naval Special Warfare Commanding Officer during his keynote address for the dedication ceremony: “You have provided us all a rallying point to honor the sacrifices of our brothers and to recall the contributions and especially the enduring values that serve to connect generations of ‘naked warriors’ throughout the decades.”
Matt Pearson, AIA, is Senior Design Architect, Clark Nexsen; email@example.com.
[Article first published in the January-February 2018 issue of The Military Engineer]