CIA’s Mission to Honor the Fallen in Silence

Cipher Brief Expert View

John Edwards is President of the CIA Officer’s Memorial Foundation.  Until his retirement, he served as CIA’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer (D/COO).  John playing a central role in overseeing and integrating the work of CIA’s Directorates and Mission Centers, including directly supervising the Directorates of Digital Innovation, Science and Technology, and Support.

View all articles by John Edwards

OPINION — For those of us who have been privileged to work at the Central Intelligence Agency, there is no place more sacred than the main entrance to the Agency’s Original Headquarters building.

The scene is familiar, even for those who have never been employed there or even visited, because the lobby has been portrayed in countless movies and news programs. As you walk into the building, you see a very large CIA seal embedded in the terrazzo floor. 

But most strikingly is what you see on your right, carved into the marble north wall is the inscription “In honor of those members of the Central Intelligence Agency who gave their lives in the service of their country.”  Below that, flanked by an American flag and CIA flag, is an array of stars, each one symbolizing a fallen officer. Just below the stars is a glass-encased book of honor which has entries for those honored with a star. Some are named and others remain anonymous, even in death.

It is that last aspect that makes the wall especially poignant for those of us who have worked at CIA. Other organizations like the military, law enforcement, firefighters and first responders have memorial displays of their own and rightfully honor and cherish the memories of their colleagues lost in the line of duty.

The very nature of the work of the CIA, however, means that sometimes the colleagues and heartbreakingly, the families of the fallen, cannot publicly praise those lost or fully tell the world about how that person lived – and how they died.

This past Monday, CIA held its annual Memorial Service.  CIA Director William Burns spoke at the ceremony noting: “Each year, we gather in this sacred place to mourn and remember. We look upon this Memorial Wall, etched with sacrifice, and honor those Agency officers who gave their lives in the service of our country.” He called the stars on the wall, “a sacred constellation that inspires us to do more.”

This year, two new stars were dedicated on the wall bringing the total to 139. At the ceremony, families of the newly fallen officers were presented marble replicas of their loved one’s star that will forever grace the Memorial Wall.

I have been privileged to attend many such ceremonies and each one is extraordinarily moving. Family members of many of the fallen attend and only in the sanctuary of the Agency lobby, the names of every fallen officer are read aloud.

The special burden of some families to keep the secret of their loved one’s life, even in death, is what, in my mind, makes these events and ceremonies so moving.

Although the Agency is about to mark its 75th anniversary this fall, 60 of the 139 stars have been added to the Wall since 9/11.  When you work at CIA as long as I did, you cannot look at that Memorial Wall, and Book of Honor, and not recognize stars that symbolize colleagues and friends you once knew well.

All those who make the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the public deserve our deep gratitude.  But those who fall in silence, deserve a special moment of recognition on this and every Memorial Day.

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