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A Museum that Masquerades as a Hotel

Marines' Memorial Association

A Museum that Masquerades as a Hotel

After ending a 26-year career at the Pentagon, U.S. Marine Col.Christopher Starling has continued his service to Americans—albeit in a different way.

He now serves as Director of Military & Veteran Affairs for the Marines’ Memorial Association in San Francisco, where veterans and families of the fallen gather to find camaraderie and comfort. In honor of Memorial Day, he spoke with about the meaning of his work.

Legacy: Help us understand the Marines’ Memorial Association from a personal point of view. What do you wish everyone knew about the club?

Starling: First off, it’s a nonprofit veteran’s organization. It was founded back in 1946.

To sum it up in one line, we exist to honor the legacy of Military service in America. We refer to this place as a living memorial. Our facility is right in Union Square in San Francisco—I say it’s a museum that masquerades as a hotel.

I summarize what we do with three action verbs: commemorate, educate and serve. In doing that, we keep the memories of our courageous actions and veterans alive.

Legacy: What is it like to visit the Marines’ Memorial Association?

Starling: Any time at happy hour, it’s incredible who you’ll meet. We bring together veterans at all facets of their lives. You’ll run into veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam... there’s a lot of goodness in bringing veterans of all eras under one roof. To talk about war, about civilian life, about the after-effects of it. People from all walks of life have this camaraderie here.

Legacy: What are some of the programs you run?

Starling: For one thing, we hold events where we host Gold Star Families, which are families who’ve lost a son or daughter… we just did our 10th one. It’s really an amazing, emotional event. California has lost over 600 sons and daughters in Iraq and Afghanistan. We invite the families here, they come stay in the hotel, and they have a booth with their son’s or daughter’s medals, pictures from high school, etc. They can meet others who’ve lost sons or daughters. We invite the public in to meet these families, to understand the human cost of war. And [the Gold Star families] now have people to go to to for support.

Legacy: Who do you remember each Memorial Day? Tell us why they are so important to you.

Starling: I come from a military family, so my father was in Vietnam, both grandfathers served in WWII. I think about my own fam and their service... what it was like back then as opposed to now. As a student of military history, I’ve studied the history of France, Korea, the beaches of Normandy... just to walk on that ground is an amazing experience. it’s very real to me to sit and reflect about what our vets went through at different times.

I also think about the friends I’ve had who were killed in Iraq. And here in the living memorial, since 9/11, we’ve had a memorial wall with a whole floor with black granite bricks with the names of the fallen. I go there to reflect and touch their names.

Legacy: How do you wish that the average American honored Memorial Day?

Starling: Revive the awareness of what it is. I encourage people to be engaged, to be aware of what veterans are in your neighborhood. And be creative: take your family to see a Military history exhibit, research your own family members’ service or have a veteran you know come and tell their story.