Standing on the south side of the Minnesota State Capitol Mall, Col. Randy Stoeckmann of the 934th Mission Support Group told the hundreds of people gathered Thursday to dedicate the Minnesota Medal of Honor memorial that a flyover of a vintage plane was arriving any minute.
The crowd of veterans, dignitaries and ordinary Minnesotans squinted skyward. The minutes passed. A Delta jet flew over: No. Then a noisy tractor-trailer on a nearby highway: No. Patience, advised Stoeckmann.
Finally, 13 planes flew over the Capitol: B-25 bombers and a Vietnam-era Douglas Skyraider and a World War II torpedo bomber and a Huey helicopter and more.
The message could be applied to the powerful yet understated memorial to the nation’s highest and most prestigious military decoration: Good things come to those who wait.
“Community support has just poured in for this memorial,” said Mike McElhiney, chief of staff at the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, a memorial board member and a Green Beret who lost an arm in Afghanistan. “There have been some struggles. There have been cost and design changes, additional and ongoing fundraising that never seemed to stop… But it will be there for a very long time.”
In 1931, Capitol architect Cass Gilbert completed his final sketch of a future veterans’ memorial at the south end of the Capitol Mall. A reflecting pool and a statue called Promise of Youth, with a woman inside an opening lily, were erected here after World War II.
A decade ago, John Kraemer of Stillwater began agitating lawmakers to build a more veteran-friendly memorial. Six years ago, when the Medal of Honor Convention was held in the Twin Cities, Minnesota’s Medal of Honor Memorial was groundbreaking.
Governor Tim Walz on Thursday called the dedication a historic moment: “(The memorial) speaks to the values that these Medal of Honor recipients embody, the best that America has to offer.”
The memorial, which incorporates the statue of the Promise of Youth, cost just under $1 million, with the majority coming from private funds. There is a garden of contemplation, a courtyard of reflection and two granite walls. There are only six words on the walls, and those are the Medal of Honor values: Patriotism, Citizenship, Courage, Integrity, Sacrifice, Commitment.
Since the Medal of Honor’s inception during the Civil War, 72 Minnesotans have been recipients; none are currently living. There are 65 living Medal of Honor recipients in the United States.
One of them, Tom Kelley from Boston, was there on Thursday. In 1969 Kelley, then a Navy lieutenant, was in charge of eight riverine assault craft when they were ambushed by the Viet Cong. The official account of his heroism, where he continued to issue orders to save a crippled craft as it was hit in the head by shrapnel and the fire continued to rain down, is breathtaking.
Kelley knows that children who hear of heroism like his, or of the two Minnesota recipients he knew before their deaths — Leo Thorsness and Don Rudolph — might be intimidated by their actions. But they shouldn’t be.
“They were ordinary men, boys, not looking for fame and glory,” Kelley said. “But I’m here to tell you today that you don’t have to be a soldier, you don’t have to be a first responder, to be a hero. You can stand up and be heard when you see something wrong… These actions matter, and they demonstrate moral courage just as heroic as the deeds of these men.”
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