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New Air Force Memorial Ready for Dedication

October 13, 2006 at 6:55 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: It’s been nearly 15 years in the making, but the United States Air Force finally has a memorial to call its own. Workers have been putting the finishing touches on the more-than-$30-million project, which commands a hill above Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, with striking views of the Pentagon and the nation’s Capitol.

Ross Perot, Jr., son of billionaire Ross Perot, led a private foundation composed of Air Force veterans and other supporters that saw the project to fruition.

ROSS PEROT, Chair, Air Force Memorial Foundation: We truly have the high ground above our nation’s Capitol, which is what the Air Force defends, always the high ground.

KWAME HOLMAN: An Air Force Reserve veteran, Perot says a Washington-area memorial to the service was long overdue. The Marines have their iconic Iwo Jima memorial; the Navy is represented by a more understated commemoration; and Army personnel are honored at several war memorials across the city.

ROSS PEROT: It’s important, because 54,000 men and women have died in serving their country for the United States Air Force. Millions of Americans have served in the United States Air Force. We’re here to honor the men and women who have served for our country, that have died for our country.

A design to honor the Air Force

KWAME HOLMAN: The Air Force tribute was designed by James Ingo Freed, who also was the architect of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and the Ronald Reagan Building office complex in downtown Washington. Freed, who died last December, described the challenge of coming up with an appropriate symbol for the Air Force, saying, "The core of this effort lies in making air tangible, making technology felt."

Freed decided to make the memorial's central feature three stainless steel spires ascending into the sky. The tallest soars 270 feet.

ROSS PEROT: What Jim Freed wanted was, when you walk up to this memorial, you have to look up. You're going to look into the air; you're going to look into space. And from all 360 degrees around Washington, you can see our memorial, and every view is different.

KWAME HOLMAN: The spires also are meant to evoke the precision flying maneuver known as the "bomb burst" that is performed by the Air Force flying team, the Thunderbirds. Near the base of the spires, a granite wall pays tribute to Air Force recipients of the Medal of Honor.

'Overwhelming beauty' and bravery

COL. GEORGE "BUD" DAY (RET.), U.S. Air Force: This has been a long time coming. There's a staggering amount of courage illustrated on this wall.

KWAME HOLMAN: Retired Air Force Colonel George "Bud" Day, who spent more than more than five years as a POW in Vietnam, found his name there.

COL. GEORGE "BUD" DAY: There's a marvelous, just overwhelming beauty to this memorial, but I can't finger it down with one word. You look at it, and it just suddenly swells up. And what do you have? The open sky, which is what we are. And, I might add, we're the owners of that sky.

KWAME HOLMAN: At the opposite end of the site, another granite wall lists the military engagements of the Air Force and the services that preceded the Air Force's formation in 1947. And an eight-foot bronze statue of an honor guard stands at attention, facing the site's center. Some 20,000 people are expected for the dedication of the Air Force Memorial tomorrow afternoon.