BRANDON - The large black monolith in the middle of the courtyard towered over the crowd gathered Saturday to honor people who served and died in the Korean War.
For the veterans who gazed up to admire it, then solemnly looked down to read the names of servicemen etched in its base, the memorial was a symbol of what they fought for and a reminder of the ongoing tensions between North and South Korea.
"I wish it was just over," Army veteran Eddie Ko said about his divided homeland of Korea. "I wish they would just do away with North Korea. South Korea is the 10th most industrialized country in the world. Can you image what Korea would be if the country was whole?"
Ko, chairman of the committee that spearheaded the construction of the Korean War Memorial at Veterans Memorial Park, was 14 years old when the North Korean Army invaded South Korea in 1950.
He said he worked as a spy for the Marines, letting commanders know of troop positions and fortifications. Five years later, Ko moved to the United States and was drafted when he was 19. He returned to South Korea to work with Army intelligence.
Ko, now 77, had a long and storied career. He said Saturday's unveiling of the memorial was a highlight.
"This is the greatest day of my life," he said. "To recognize the 56 veterans from Tampa who fought in the Korean War and the 556 from Florida."
About 300 people gathered at the park, 3602 U.S. 301 North, for the ceremony. The main attraction was the granite memorial, which had a stone relief of North and South Korea on its face. Carved into the memorial was the war's toll: 37,576 killed; 103,236 wounded; 8,099 missing in action.
Next to the memorial was another honoring Baldomero Lopez, a Hillsborough High School graduate who was the first man from Tampa killed during the war.
Lopez, then 25 and a lieutenant with the Marines, sacrificed himself and saved the men under his command by falling on a grenade. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
"Because of their actions, South Korea has been a free and prosperous nation," Young Chang Ha, a retired Navy captain said about the names etched into the memorial.
The two structures are just the first phase of the Korean War Memorial. Officials with the Korean War Veterans Association said the second phase will include statues of Gen. Douglas McArthur and soldiers who fought during the three-year conflict.
The memorial has "exceeded all our expectations," said Board of County Commissioners Chairman Ken Hagan. "This is to commemorate the lives of those who fought and died. Today's memorial dedication does not only honor the 56 in our community who served, but also etches their legacies into our collective conscious."
During the ceremony, a Marine honor guard performed a rifle salute and "Taps," and the Tampa Bay Korean Women's Chorus performed the national anthems of the United States and South Korea.
Chorus member Eun Jung Cho Morgan, who wore a traditional Korean dress called a hanbok, said the memorial was beautiful.
"It's wonderful," she said. "Everything is so good."
Veterans Park also features memorials for veterans of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam war. A memorial for veterans of the Iraq conflict is in the conceptual phase.