I remember coming home at a particularly difficult time for America. It was 50 years ago, during the Vietnam War era, when things were far more contentious than they are today. My friends and I went to war because that was what young men did back then. Tens of thousands of my fellow soldiers returned with grievous wounds, and far too many never saw home again. We didn’t think much about geopolitical strategy in Southeast Asia. For the most part, we fought for our friends, families, and comrades in arms. We fought to come home. But some of us came home to a place where that kind of service was no longer honored.
In 1968, America was torn by political violence that cut down our most charismatic leaders, racial conflict so raw it set whole cities on fire, a social upheaval so revolutionary that our culture has never been the same. But, through it all, we remained a nation indivisible. Over time, the heat cooled and we went back to being a family again.
Today we need another reminder of what makes us one American family. The temper of the times is hot again, stoked by technology and an information age that amplifies our disputes and celebrates our divisions. There seems to be no common ground where we can all say, “this is who we are.”
It’s time to create a place where we can learn about ordinary citizens from every conceivable background who confronted lethal challenges for the sake of others . . . people who defied danger because there are things more important than personal comfort or safety. More than ever, we need to hear about Americans whose diverse, inspiring, life stories tell us more about what unites us than what sets us apart.
I believe it is a great failing of our country that there is no national institution dedicated to the men and woman who have received the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military distinction. Each of the more than 3,500 Americans who have earned this honor over the past 155 years has a story of heroism to tell that puts our current quarrels in their proper perspective. Yet very few of us know these stories, and it’s the rare American who knows the names of even one recipient.
That needs to change.
Our generation has an opportunity right now to enshrine these inspiring stories so they are never forgotten. We need to build a National Medal of Honor Museum to remind us that bravery and compassion lie deep within all of us and that patriotism is something that can bring us together.
This Thanksgiving we’ll observe the usual national rituals, a big meal and maybe football on the TV. And there will likely be the usual debates and sharp words. But let’s remember that we are, in a sense, a big and varied family – together in an often inhospitable world. We are home for this uniquely American holiday thanks to the sacrifices of friends and neighbors who answered the call to defend what makes us a nation. God bless our troops and God bless America.