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Rockefeller: Buckles, peers deserve national memorial

March 24, 2011|By U.S. Sen. JAY ROCKEFELLER

I had the rare honor of participating in the events at Arlington National Cemetery to pay tribute to Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last surviving American World War I veteran and the representative of the lost generation of our “doughboys.”

It was a moving afternoon, standing with so many on the knoll and seeing Frank Buckles buried in Section 34, in sight of Gen. Pershing’s grave and among many other World War I veterans. I also thought about the American flags at half-staff in our embassies in the countries of our World War I allies.

Honestly, though, the way I remember Frank Buckles was sitting in his study, surrounded by books and telling amazing stories about the adventures of his life.

Frank Buckles’ rich and colorful life is now part of our national history, our national consciousness and our national effort to pay tribute to the men and women who died in the most significant wars of the last century.

Frank’s effort to join the Army was a deliberate commitment to join military service, and he was eager to get to Europe. He loved the Army and his service in World War I as an ambulance driver, which exposed him to some of the worst horrors of that conflict.

After his military service, Frank Buckles continued his efforts to engage the world. His life — a long, sweeping arc across the last century — included an exciting and varied life where he traveled the world, working abroad and experiencing things that most of us can only read about. As if he hadn’t endured enough suffering in the first World War, he later spent three years as a civilian POW in World War II.

When his days of being an active participant in two world wars ended, he eventually settled into a quiet existence in Charles Town, W.Va., where his tractor, his farm, and his friends and family were enough to sustain him.

As I got to know him, I learned that his deep appreciation for books and culture was an important part of who he was. He spoke multiple languages, enjoyed talking about culture more than he did war, and was thoughtful and interested to the end.

To most of us though, Frank amounted to so much more than just a man who had lived a life that was as interesting as it was unpredictable.

Frank became a symbol for the entire war — for the nearly 4.5 million U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who served during World War I.

As the last living connection to the first World War, his importance in our collective psyche grew with each passing year. He seemed impossibly stubborn and tough, and his long and wonderful life made him all the more special.

Toward the end of his life, more and more people understood just how privileged we were to keep company with the last surviving doughboy.

He was a link to a long-ago war — not forgotten, but so far in the past that the pictures that we think of when we conjure up images are all grainy and tattered.

It made it all the more amazing that Frank was the only man who could honestly look any of us in the eye and say, “this is what the war was like.”

More than 116,000 Americans died in World War I. Frank was an adamant proponent of remembering these heroes by establishing a National World War I Memorial on the National Mall.

I agree and support him in that effort, which is why I am the proud sponsor of the bipartisan bill to truly honor our World War I veterans.

My bill would create a commission to plan for the upcoming centennial, and it would rededicate the D.C. memorial as the D.C. and National World War I memorial. It would also dedicate the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo.

I agree with Frank Buckles on the importance of remembering our veterans and want to say again here today that I am more determined than ever to make this happen and will not give up until we get that bill passed.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has been a member of Congress since 1984.

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