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LIVINGSTON: Stolen cross, stolen honor
Mojave Desert site was only memorial to World War I veterans
Frank Woodruff Buckles was born in Missouri 109 years ago. He is a national hero and the last living American veteran of World War I. But as we observed this Veterans Day - a day conceived as a celebration of the end of that bloody war - there was no national monument to honor Mr. Buckles and 5 million other Americans who served our nation in uniform then. The sole National Monument to World War I has been destroyed by vandals, and the Obama administration refuses to allow its replacement, even by private citizens, even at private expense.
In 1934, John Bembrey, along with several fellow veterans, erected a simple cross on a granite outcrop in the Mojave Desert. Their intention was to commemorate the sacrifice made by their comrades in the Great War, and for the next 65 years, this modest memorial was quietly maintained by volunteers. In 2000, the Mojave Desert Cross was designated by the U.S. Congress as the only official National Monument to World War I.
Then the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other self-appointed guardians of the Constitution argued that the Mojave Desert Memorial Cross was an affront to the principle of separation of church and state. A decade-long battle ensued until April of this year, when the U.S. Supreme Court - the actual arbiter of the Constitution - issued a ruling that the cross could remain.
The majority decision of the high court was delivered by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, and it read, “The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm. A cross by the side of a public highway marking, for instance, the place where a state trooper perished, need not be taken as a statement of governmental support for sectarian beliefs. The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.”
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the lower courts for further review. That means the legal battle will continue, and the ACLU already has promised to continue its fight to remove the cross from the memorial.
Not content to leave it to the courts and inflamed by the April decision, criminals torched through supports and stole the cross on May 10. Even though destruction of that cross is a federal crime under the Veterans Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act of 2003, no action was taken by the FBI or by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s Department of Justice. So, Americans did what Americans do best and solved the problem on their own. Concerned citizens replaced the cross with an exact replica and restored the memorial.
On May 20, 10 days after the memorial’s desecration and the theft of the cross, park rangers found the replacement cross bolted to the base of the original. The Park Service removed it because it was not the original cross but merely a replica. Mojave National Park spokeswoman Linda Slater explained, “The Park Service has regulations about people putting up memorials. You can’t just go to a park and put up a memorial to a family member.” She explained neither the non sequitur about a “family member,” nor the logic of the Park Service actions.
Towering above the Park Service and picayune ACLU wrangling is World War I itself. Though hundreds of monuments in Washington and across the nation celebrate obscure people and events, there is not a single national monument to the sacrifices made by 4,734,991 uniformed Americans who were at war from April 6, 1917, to the day the Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918. In those 19 months of slaughter, empires fell, kings abdicated and 10 million soldiers died on the battlefield, including 116,516 Americans.
The Mojave Desert Cross commemorates American bravery. In less than two years, 119 men were awarded the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military honor. The accompanying citations attempted to capture the recipients’ bravery with phrases such as “… showed the highest possible contempt of personal danger, devotion to duty, courage, and valor.” During months of trench warfare, poison gas and terrible new weapons including tanks, airplanes and machine guns, America was graced with heroes such as flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, Tennessee mountaineer Alvin C. York (hero of the film “Sergeant York”) and young Army volunteers such as Frank Woodruff Buckles.
The Mojave Desert Cross is also a tribute to the multicultural nature of America. Among the soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor were men born in Austria, China, England, Finland, Greece, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Montenegro, Norway and Serbia. During World War I, the U.S. military inducted 500,000 immigrants of 46 nationalities, and every one of them was an American warrior. Serving alongside them were 10,000 American Indians and 350,000 black Americans.
Christians know the cross as a symbol of divine sacrifice. But the cross stolen from the Mojave Desert also was an earthly symbol. It spoke of the death of more than 100,000 Americans and the honor and bravery of millions more. It was the sole national monument to our nation’s World War I veterans, and it must be made whole again. Surely Mr. Obama will not continue to ignore calls to recognize their bloody sacrifice.
Now is the time for the president to direct the National Park Service to allow patriotic Americans to replace the Mojave Desert Cross. The replica of the cross will be exact, and only private money and effort will be used to restore the Mojave Desert National Monument to its former dignity. Not a single dollar will come from the federal budget.
In the meantime, Americans - and America’s millions of veterans - are left to ask: Does President Obama’s silence mean Americans in uniform today will also be forgotten tomorrow?
James E. Livingston is a retired U.S. Marine Corps major general and Medal of Honor recipient, Paul E. Vallely is a retired U.S. Army major general, and John M. Poindexter is a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral. All are decorated veterans and signers of the national petition to Honor Our WW One Vets (HonorOurWWOneVets.org).
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