National Vigilance Park
Fort Meade, Maryland
Surveillance has been a dirty word to Americans for a long time. We enjoy our civil liberties, are pretty much convinced Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover were sneaky snoops, and don't like our pictures taken, judging by the reaction of most people when you point a camera their way. Duck and cover!
Yet intelligence gathered through covert surveillance helped win the Cold War, and is arguably more vital than ever, post-"Who was watching Bin Laden, anyway?" All of sudden, checking up on your enemies is a good idea.
Classified for so many decades, the US Military can now commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice performing intelligence collection at the fringes of Freedom. One such salute is at National Vigilance Park.
The park is next to a parking lot for the restricted facilities of the National Security Agency (NSA) -- lots of perspiring white-shirted guys and Linda Tripp-types dashing to and from their cars. And it's just around the corner from the National Cryptologic Museum. The museum has been maintained by the NSA for decades, showing off their obsolete and declassified cryptologic finery: a WWII-era Enigma machine, Civil War signal flags, dusty cipher wheels and KGB apparatus.
The National Vigilance Park is newer, dedicated in 1997 along with the Aerial Reconnaissance Memorial. For the duration of the Cold War era, over 40 aircraft observing our enemies at not so safe distances were shot down. The military personnel lost in those mysterious encounters could not be publicly recognized for their heroism until years later.
The centerpiece of the park is a C-130 aircraft painted to appear similar to Flight 60528, downed in 1958 after accidentally entering Soviet airspace in Armenia. In 1997, a vintage 1957 plane found mothballed in Arizona was restored to flying status and flown east for modification. Then it was disassembled and trucked to the designated area for the new park.
The C-130 is permanently parked in front of a row of rapidly growing evergreen trees. The 18 trees represent the airframes lost performing vital missions. Explanatory signs and benches are positioned around the park.
One plaque is "I am Military Intelligence," a long, embossed credo seemingly inspired by the Stones' Sympathy for the Devil (or vice versa): "I was with Moses as he sent Caleb into the Promised land ahead of his people... At Pearl Harbor, unheeded, I wept at the waste... I am Military Intelligence and I am always out Front... Always."
A smaller plane to the right of the C-130 fits more of our notion of old spy planes, an all-black RU-8 twin propeller aircaft, the "workhorse of the U.S. Army's airborne intelligence operations during the Vietnam era." The RU-8 was dedicated in 1998 in memory of the 68 reconnaissance planes lost in the Nam conflict, and the 78 crewman killed.
A set of low bleachers are thoughtfully placed with the C-130 as a backdrop, the left wing offering shade from the summer sun. An American family can sit and eat their ham sandwiches in the relative peace provided by our umbrella of Intelligence.