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Dedication of the National Medal of Honor Memorial
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Riverside National Cemetery, Riverside, California , Friday, November 05, 1999

Thank you, Michael [Goldware, Chairman of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society], for your moving words and for the extraordinary amount of time and energy that you have invested to make this memorial such a great success. Secretary [of Veterans Affairs, Togo D.] West [Jr.]; Congressman [Ken] Calvert; Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients and members of your families; officers and members of the armed forces, past and present; Janet [Cohen]; distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen.

More than a century ago, one of the earliest recipients of the Medal of Honor, the Civil War hero General Joshua Chamberlain, returned to Gettysburg and spoke at the dedication of a monument to his soldiers.

He said, "The inspiration of a noble cause involving human interests far and wide, enables men to do things they did not dream themselves capable of before and which they were not capable of alone. The consciousness of belonging, vitally, to something beyond individuality, of part of a personality that reaches we know not where, in space and in time, greatens the heart to the limits of the soul’s ideal."

Today, at this grand memorial to Americans of singular courage and character, we gather with hearts that are indeed greatened to their limit.

We gather, in part, to express the fullness of our gratitude to the proud members of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, to this city and its cemetery, and to the countless hands—veterans, donors, volunteers, and artisans—who have joined together to create this inspiring symbol and magnificent ceremony.

This national expression of appreciation to America’s greatest heroes will reach not only beyond the bounds of this city and this state, it will reach beyond the bounds of this generation—profound in its principles, powerful in its eloquence—and speak down through the ages to those who inherit the flourishing legacy of freedom that has been bequeathed to us.

We also gather, in part, to offer our respect and remembrance to men and women of boldness and bravery: soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who, through the force of will, or an unexpected twist of fate saved their comrades from the unforgiving savagery of war, or inspired them to victory through unimaginable feats of sacrifice.

Today, we honor the heroes who stand among us and those living across the nation, who, in their defining hours, were not blind to fears but rather strong enough to see through them, who reached deep within for the resolve to achieve what even they may have considered impossible.

 

Today, we honor the heroes now departed, who carried into battle the light of true friendships and fidelity to their nation, but who broke and bled into a blackness from which they never returned.

Destiny has carved a signature of their lives into these walls, and I dare say that no one will be able to witness the force of this memorial without being profoundly moved in the very center of their souls. But if we are to keep faith those who have served and sacrificed, we must do more than revel in their gallantry and epic daring. We must also grant them the simple dignity of being remembered in their true dimensions, as they regarded themselves and were viewed by those around them: as a child raised by a mother and father; a young person, a student, or a neighbor; an occasional confidante or a friend for life.

Indeed, to run one’s fingers along the eternal etchings of these walls is to trace the larger fabric of humanity in which their acts were enfolded: parents whose last contact with their son was a letter from a distant country; friends who have helped our veterans to heal and recover from the ravages of war; entire families stricken with grief when the young spark in their lives flickers with pain or vanishes in silence.

So I believe we should use this memorial to remember their pain and sacrifice also. America is eternally indebted to the families and friends of our servicemen who stood, and continue to stand, behind each of these heroes. It is never too late for us, individually and collectively, to say we recognize your loss, we respect your sacrifice, we thank you.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to invite this amazing array of Medal of Honor recipients here today to stand at this time so that a grateful nation can honor their service and sacrifice. And as they remain standing, I would like their family members and the relatives of all the recipients--past and present--to also stand so that we may pay tribute to you.

Every American--military and civilian, old and young--should be heartened by the depth and diversity of this gathering here today. But ultimately the burden of responsibility that each of us carries away from this sacred place and builds upon is far more important than what has been built here. As President Lincoln counseled, the greatest honor we can pay to those who have fought for America is to rededicate ourselves to the principles for which America stands, to ensure that those who suffered or died shall not have done so in vain.

At the dawn of this century, the soldier and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. spoke at the dedication of another memorial. And he said, "We all walk by faith. But our faith must not be limited to our personal task, to the present, or even to the future. It must include the past and bring all—past, present, and future—into the unity of a single continuous life. We consecrate these memorials with the intent and expectation that centuries from now those who read the simple words will find their lives richer and their purposes stronger. Modest as they are, the monuments now unveiled seem to me trumpets, which two hundred years from now may blow the great battle calls of life."

Ladies and gentlemen, a walk by these walls is indeed a "walk by faith." But among these walls, we hear more than the rousing echoes of the victorious, more than the tragic cries of the fallen. We hear the clear and distant trumpets of battles still to come, the summons to gather our courage and our resolve. And they bid us to preserve freedom in our time in order to honor those who made us free.

The spirit and purpose shown here today gives me great confidence that we shall always answer that call. The gallant heroes whom we honor today deserve no less. Our destiny can not be achieved unless we are always ready to ask and to give more. Thank you very much.