Since being named the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, many people have called me a hero. It is not a label I am particularly comfortable embracing. When I think of the bravery of a hero, I think of the soldiers I served alongside in harrowing conditions and those who continue to return to those dangerous places. And when I consider the sacrifices made by a hero, I remember friends who gave their lives so that the rest of us could enjoy relative peace. I do not believe I will ever truly get used to hearing people call me hero. Yet I will accept the recognition every time if it gives me a chance to tell the stories of my heroes – my brothers and sisters in arms.
Today’s generation of military men and women have not suffered a shortage of encouragement from our nation. Our service members are grateful for the care packages, kind words from strangers, contributions of military support organizations and warm homecomings. We know the nation has not always been as united behind the military, and we do not take that encouragement for granted.
However, even with an outpouring of support, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face a different challenge. Today’s military members serve a nation more disconnected from its armed forces than at any time in our country’s history. Less than one percent of our citizens serve in uniform.
At the 2011 West Point graduation ceremony, Admiral Michael Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the American public was undoubtedly supportive of the military, but admitted, “I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.” For such a divide to exist after our military had endured, at that time, nearly 10 years of continuous combat speaks to just how few personal connections Americans have with today’s warriors.
Our nation needs a place that helps us make a personal connection to those who have answered the call, a place that both honors current service members and educates our citizens about the individual stories behind the names and numbers we see on the news. The military may be just a small minority of today’s population, but the sacrifices made by these service members are just as profound as those made by every generation before. Their bravery is just as unmatched. Their heroism is just as great. The grief of their family and friends when they do not return is just as wrenching. And the obligation we have to ensure our nation never forgets who they were is just as sacred.
Until the day comes when our nation finds an appropriate way to pay tribute to the men and women who served in the Global War on Terror, the founders of the Vietnam War Memorial have offered to share a place of honor with today’s veterans. On November 28, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund will host a ceremonial groundbreaking on the National Mall in Washington for The Education Center at The Wall, a facility that will use photos, state of the art technology, and the 400,000 pieces of memorabilia left at the Vietnam War Memorial since 1982 to tell the stories of the more than 58,000 engraved names.
A place within this center will be dedicated to the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan. Digital photos of these service members will be shown in rotating displays. The exhibit will help bring to life those selfless men and women who gave their lives in relative obscurity in defense of our nation. It will also provide those of us who knew them a common setting where we can visit and reflect.
The veterans of the Vietnam War know what it is like to wait for a memorial to be authorized and created. On behalf of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are grateful that they are ensuring that a memorial for our generation will be ready to welcome the last of our troops returning from Afghanistan in 2014.
I encourage our nation to support the construction of The Education Center to keep alive the stories of those we have lost. Once you learn what they gave for our country, you’ll understand why I consider them the true heroes.