Honoring our Veterans, Now and Forever

Jun 5, 2015
EC from DC

Congressman Cleaver speaks to a crowd of thousands at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. You may watch the speech by clicking here.


Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at the National World War I Museum and Memorial and at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Fountain in honor of Memorial Day. As I shared with many that day, I believe that memorials, small and large, evolve from emotions.

Truly, memorials are the memories that remind us of the sacrifice, service, and contributions. And believe it or not, we human beings are obsessed with memorials. We aren’t even conscious of the fact that we are obsessed with it. And it’s been this way for thousands of years.

Congressman Cleaver speaks to a crowd at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Fountain.


In fact, a memorial can be found in many places – a poem, a tree, a gravestone in a cemetery. If you drive up and down a highway you will come across memorial after memorial where loved ones have marked the spot where a loved one died and you’ll see flowers. All over the country we are obsessed with memorials. A memorial is a keepsake and we must be the guardians to protect their message. If we forget the past, as we sometimes do, we certainly will repeat the need to sacrifice.

There are other signs and symbols we use to remember our past. This week, I joined President Barack Obama, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) at the White House on Tuesday to posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Honor to Army Private Henry Johnson and Army Sergeant William Shemin. Three World War I Centennial Commissioners were also present: Col. Robert Dalessandro, Libby O’Connell, and Edwin Fountain.

The ceremony allowed us to honor the memory, service, and sacrifice of two key individuals who served during World War I. The year 2018 will mark the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice with Germany, ending World War I battlefield hostilities. It’s taken far too long for us to adequately honor the service and sacrifice of the more than four million men and women from the United States who served during World War I. Now is the time to pay our tribute.

Senator Schumer and the Johnson family have received my support in their work throughout this process. As you know, it has been my honor to champion the cause to create the World War I Centennial Commission, and to designate the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City as the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

“We are a nation -- a people -- who remember our heroes,” President Obama said on Tuesday. “We take seriously our responsibility to only send them when war is necessary. We strive to care for them and their families when they come home. We never forget their sacrifice. And we believe that it’s never too late to say thank you.”

Congressman Cleaver, pictured here with Tara Johnson, at the White House.


During World War I, Private Johnson served as a part of the 369th Infantry Regiment the “Harlem Hellfighters,” an all-black infantry regiment based in New York. Private Johnson’s honor comes nearly 86 years after his death in 1929. He bravely risked his own life to fend off a German raid in order to save his fellow soldier, Private Needham Roberts, from German captivity. Johnson had himself and Roberts barricade themselves in French trenches in order to avoid being struck by German gunfire.

Johnson repelled the German attack by lobbing grenades, returning rifle fire, ultimately leading to him engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Left only with his knife, Johnson charged at the enemy as they attempted to capture Roberts. While saving his injured friend’s life, Johnson suffered nearly two dozen injuries, including gunshot wounds to his head, lip, side and hand.

Despite any official recognition at the time, former President Theodore Roosevelt later called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I. Private Johnson’s efforts earned him the Croix de Guerre, the French government’s highest level of military recognition for bravery during battle.

Major Herman Johnson and his daughter Tara, of Kansas City, worked tirelessly for the movement of Private Johnson’s remains to Arlington Cemetery and the awarding of a Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross. Herman, a Tuskegee Airman, died believing he was Private Johnson's son, although no biological relation exists. Tara was present at the ceremony.

President Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Honor to Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson, who accepted the award on Johnson’s behalf. The Presidential Medal of Honor is only awarded to members of the Armed Forces who distinguish themselves conspicuously by gallantry above and beyond the call of duty.