Medal of Honor Grove

Medal of Honor Grove

Ever-bustling Route 23 goes past the Freedoms Foundation and takes you right into Valley Forge National Historical Park. Intent on arriving at the monuments, trails and re-created Revolutionary War barracks, many tourists probably drive past the turnoff for an organization that promotes constitutional literacy and civic engagement in a way that appeals to a nation vastly more diverse, but just as contentious, as that of the 18th-century founders.

The first thing you notice as you walk past the red-brick dormitories and offices into the trees of the Medal of Honor Grove is the silence.

Divided by fundamental cultural and political disagreements, America is a cacophonous, often angry place right now.

In a time of civil strife, the mission of the Foundation may seem quaint, even anachronistic. But the citizenship and educational programs offered to students, teachers and others at the Freedoms Foundation are a robust rejoinder to shortcuts and cheap shots — and a reminder that the ideals that animated the founders still hold true.

The grove itself offers a mute testimony to bravery and heroism and an American faith that goodness has the last word, even in death.

Columnist

Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans

More than 3,500 men (only one recipient thus far is a woman, Civil War surgeon Mary Walker) are commemorated with markers in the foundation's 42-acre grove.  Marked by 52 obelisks, a segment of the glade is allotted to each state, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.  

It's hard not to go through it (and you can; the grove is open every day from dawn to dusk) and not be moved by the testimonies to selflessness, bravery and sacrifice (most medals are given posthumously) that throng the silent air.

Located near the entrance to the grove, the Chaplain's Memorial honors the five Catholic and four Protestant men who received the Medal of Honor, serving in conflicts that spanned the Civil War to Vietnam. (There also is a nondenominational chapel on the grounds.)

Two chaplains, Emil Kapaun, who served in Korea,  and  Vincent R. Capodanno, a Navy officer killed in Vietnam, are being considered by the Vatican for sainthood.

In a 2013 article from the Religion News Service, when Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, he was remembered this way by the soldiers who knew him:

“Kapaun worked alongside other soldiers, digging latrines and foxholes. And he risked his life time after time to save the fallen.

“Kapaun saw several battles during the war, and in each one he would run outside the perimeter to save the wounded soldiers, despite pleas from his fellow soldiers to remain in safety. But during the Battle of Unsan, Kapaun's regiment was surrounded by a sea of Chinese soldiers. Kapaun refused to escape and leave the fallen Americans and was captured on Nov. 2, 1950.”

He died in a prisoner of war camp in 1951, the 11th U.S. chaplain to die in the line of duty since World War II.

In the Medal of Honor Grove, one is surrounded by thousands of such stories. If only obelisks could speak. They are a witness to the best that is in us.

The tempestuous currents sweeping through American society may be muted here, but they are not banished.

As we stop near the obelisk that honors Puerto Rico, my guide, Deb Woolson, the curator of the Grove, tells me that of all the groups who show up to honor their heroes, the local Latin American Legion post is among the most faithful. It's a reminder that the people of the territory have proudly spilled blood to defend an America  they dearly love, even though some fellow citizens think they don’t belong.

One memorial is dedicated to the more than 160 Medal of Honor recipients who were not U.S. citizens — a concrete reminder that you don't have to be born here to fight and die for America.

Standing on hallowed ground, it is easy to glimpse the unity beneath our strife and to see our national determination so vividly expressed. Standing there, it is easy to believe that the flames of democracy fanned by so many generations will not go out.

Pull back into the endless stream of traffic at the foundation entrance, and the moment of tranquillity and optimism is gone.

But for those who want to remember that we are more than our deepest divisions, the foundation and the grove remain, inspiring us and inviting us once again into conversation with the hope that we can find a way to transcend our differences and embrace the divine spark that inhabits each of us — and makes us one.

Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans is a freelance writer and nonparochial Episcopalian priest.

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