Veterans Day reminds us that Americans have a proud legacy of service, selflessness and courage, pulling together to get the job done when the stakes are high. Throughout our history, we have been shown to be self-reliant in a way that sets us apart from other nations.
These values have been evident through the years on foreign and forsaken battlefields where individual stories of self-sacrifice and heroism continue to inspire us. Like Army Technician 5th Grade Robert D. Maxwell who, in 1944 and despite being outnumbered, aggressively fought off advancing enemy elements and unhesitatingly hurled himself onto a grenade using his blanket and his unprotected body to absorb the full force of the explosion. This act of heroism permanently injured Technician 5th Grade Maxwell, but saved the lives of his comrades in arms.
Or Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Clinton “Clint” Romesha who helped to fight off 300 enemy combatants occupying the high ground on all four sides of the complex he was in. Staff Sgt. Romesha took out an enemy machine gun team and, while engaging a second, the generator he was using for cover was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, inflicting him with shrapnel wounds. Undeterred by his injuries, Staff Sgt. Romesha continually exposed himself to heavy enemy fire, as he moved confidently about the battlefield engaging and destroying multiple enemy targets, including three Taliban fighters who had breached the combat outpost’s perimeter. These two men were prepared to sacrifice everything for their friends and comrades, our nation and for their mission.
Their selflessness and bravery were recognized with a Medal of Honor, the highest honor bestowed upon any veteran or active duty military personnel.
As a nation, we must honor the extraordinary courage and commitment of Americans whose actions show they are the bravest among us. We celebrate our athletes with various halls of fame like the Pro-Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, or the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, but in this country, there is no “Hall of Fame” for the highest and most prestigious personal military decoration.
We need to preserve the stories of our nation’s Medal of Honor recipients and harness their power to inspire tens of millions of Americans in current and future generations to carry out the medal’s core values in our everyday lives. We must remind ourselves that each of us has the potential for heroism, but only some are called on to fulfill that promise. We must build a National Medal of Honor Museum.
The National Medal of Honor Museum, which is now in development, will serve a special purpose at a critical time. It will show that courage is the product of compassion, not anger and that we share a common bond as free and self-reliant citizens and as selfless, caring, neighbors. Especially in such a divisive climate, we need more reminders of what we can proudly claim to have in common. Perhaps we can repay, in a small way, those brave Americans on missions around the globe who have sacrificed so much for us by remembering their acts of compassion with a museum that will stand for future generations.
The common theme in Maxwell’s and Romesha’s stories, and those of our nation’s more 3,500 other Medal of Honor recipients is a drive to complete the mission at all costs without regard to their own safety. That same impulse has driven millions of American military veterans and we should be thankful for their determination and grit today and every day of the year.
As the former President & CEO of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, I know first-hand the positive effect that stories of sacrifice and bravery can have. I have seen a fundamentally transformative effect the stories of the more than 400 first responders who were killed on 9/11 and the countless stories of regular citizens helping their colleagues have had on the tens of millions of people who have visited that sacred place. The stories of our Medal of Honor recipients are inspirational in the same way and have the capacity to positively impact the lives of millions of Americans.
Unfortunately, institutions that celebrate the best of American character don’t get built on their own. It took ten years, the day-to-day efforts of hundreds of people and the support of millions from across the country to build the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. And along the way, there were countless obstacles to overcome. But we never lost sight of the mission.
It’s now up to us to find a home for the National Medal of Honor Museum. It’s time to take the mantle of remembrance and to amplify how the actions of a few continue to be recognized and respected by all of us who they fought to protect. That is our mission to complete.