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The Senate must act quickly to build a National Medal of Honor Monument

Time is of the essence if we are to properly pay tribute to these American heroes and ensure that their legacy is preserved.

Apr 18 2024
Chris Cassidy | Atlanta Journal-Constitution

OPINION – Time is a critical element of any mission. As a Navy SEAL and NASA astronaut, I learned that success or failure often comes down to how much time is available. Unfortunately, for many of America’s Medal of Honor recipients, those awarded our nation’s highest decoration for valor in combat, who have already given so much for our country, time is running low on their next mission: to see a national monument in their honor built and opened while they are alive.

Out of more than 40 million individuals who have served in the U.S. armed forces, fewer than 4,000 have been awarded the Medal of Honor — and just 62 remain with us to share their stories, a number that sadly dropped recently with the death of Georgia-native Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. In the Korean War, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire while capturing a strategic hill and then, despite being seriously wounded and outnumbered, led his company of Army Rangers in repelling waves of counterattacks. Puckett was the last surviving recipient from the Korean War, and his death leaves us without a living link to a conflict that is often overlooked but in which Puckett and 147 other Medal of Honor recipients demonstrated the utmost courage, selflessness and patriotism.

It took 71 years and the advocacy of multitudes — including the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and top Army officers Gens. Joseph Votel and Stanley McCrystal — before the nation finally presented Puckett with our military’s top honor in 2021. It was a wait no one who gave so much on behalf of our country should have had to endure. Unfortunately, the wait for the creation of a National Medal of Honor Monument also spans decades, with heroes like Puckett and Cpl. Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last living World War II recipient who died in 2022, not living to see this tribute to their valor established in our nation’s capital.

That is why a bill currently before the U.S. Senate to locate this monument on the National Mall — legislation that passed unanimously in the U.S. House five months ago — must be quickly approved and sent to President Biden for his signature. For the few remaining living recipients, many in the twilight of their lives, it will be a permanent testament to their service and sacrifice — overdue recognition from a grateful nation. For everyday Americans it will be a beacon of the ideals embodied in the medal — a reminder of what unites us. And for all those generations yet to come it will be a place to learn what it takes to uphold our republic — an inspiration to look for ways to make a positive difference in the world.

This project transcends partisan politics, drawing support from former presidents, athletes, corporate executives and hardworking Americans from all different backgrounds in every corner of the country. That is why it is so frustrating — for me and all those who care about honoring our nation’s veterans — to see the Senate sit on this bill that would clear the final hurdle to constructing this monument.

Though a permanent memorial has been discussed for years, it is only in the past few years that we have seen real progress made. In 2021, Congress unanimously passed and Biden signed into law a measure authorizing my organization, the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation, to build the monument. In November, the House took the next step by unanimously passing H.R. 2717, the Hershel “Woody” Williams National Medal of Honor Monument Location Act, which would locate the monument in a prominent location within the reserve of the National Mall. The bill now sits before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources awaiting a hearing, a committee vote and passage by the full Senate to send the legislation to the president’s desk.

In the time since the House vote and while the bill has been held up in committee, America lost not just Puckett but also two heroes of the Vietnam War: Medal of Honor recipients Roger H.C. Donlon and Larry L. Taylor. I shudder to think of who else might no longer be around to impart their wisdom by the time a monument is built. Time is of the essence if we are to properly pay tribute to these American heroes and ensure that their legacy is preserved.

The National Mall in Washington, D.C. is filled with monuments to some of our greatest Americans. By going above and beyond the call of duty, in demonstrating values we all share and aspire to, Puckett, Williams, Donlon, Taylor and the other 3,513 Medal of Honor recipients have earned their place alongside Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson. The Senate needs to act swiftly and make this monument happen.