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Memorial Day, the Great War, and America’s Last Surviving World War I Veteran

Americans today are rightly concerned about the health and safety of our troops engaged in the Global War on Terrorism. We are equally interested in preserving the legacy of our World War II “greatest generation.” But as we focus on our soldiers of today and yesterday, we should recognize the nearly 4.5 million men who wore the American uniform in the “Great War.” Now, nearly ninety years after the end of the conflict, only one veteran of World War I survives. When Frank W. Buckles dies, his name will be added to a list of “last veterans” kept by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The most recent update to this list took place in 1992 when Nathan Cook died at the age of 106. He was the last surviving veteran of the Spanish-American War.

The dwindling ranks of our World War I veterans – literally from millions to one – marks a poignant moment in our nation’s history. When Frank Buckles is gone, our direct and living connection to the Great War will be gone. Only images, artifacts, and words of the period will remain.

As one major preserver of these remains, the National Museum of Health and Medicine is a unique memorial to the war and its veterans. The museum’s collections of photographs, films, anatomical specimens, and medical equipment document not only the medical challenges and achievements of the 1917-1918 American Expeditionary Forces but also the broader social history of our soldiers “over there” and our nation at home during that watershed era. On this Memorial Day we should recognize the memories held in the public trust by – indeed the public memorial function of – the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Equally important is recognition of our traditional memorials to the World War I veterans, their war, and their experiences. Visitors to Washington’s Mall should see the World War I memorial there. Commemorating the military service of Washington residents, with its fading marble inscriptions, this site is hidden in a grove of magnolia trees just a few hundred yards from the newer National World War II Memorial. It is largely out of sight, so it is not surprising that it is out of mind as we think about and walk the landscape of the National Mall.

World War I is the first chapter in the history of the modern era. That generation was the first war generation to witness fully mechanized battle. It came of age in the face of machine guns, tanks, and gas that killed hundreds of thousands and disabled, disfigured, and traumatized hundreds of thousands more. It witnessed the horrors of war, and some lived to see another world war and wars beyond that.

The World War I generation created ideas and language that are still in use. When we describe the ongoing political battles over abortion rights as “trench warfare,” the terrain after a natural disaster as “no man’s land,” and the victims of hurricanes as “shell-shocked,” we are using descriptions that have their origin in the generation that – with the passing of Frank Buckles – will soon leave us entirely.

 An emergency hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas, during the 1918 influenza epidemic. The 1918 flu outbreak was the worst epidemic in American history, killing more than 675,000 people across the nation and 25 million worldwide. Otis Historical Archives (NCP 1603), National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, DC

That generation also witnessed a public health tragedy. The 1918 flu outbreak was the worst epidemic in American history, killing more than 675,000 Americans and tens of millions worldwide. This event and the generation that confronted it have been in the headlines today as we brace ourselves for another possible pandemic, perhaps one on the scale of 1918. We were unprepared then to deal with such a crisis, and we are unprepared now.

The World War I generation witnessed medical innovation. On the battlefront, wounded American soldiers benefited from doctors adopting the World War I French system of triage, the sorting casualties according to the severity of wounds and their need for surgical treatment.

 Occupational therapy at Walter Reed Hospital during World War I. Otis Historical Archives (Reeve 4272), National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, DC

At Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, and other hospitals around the country, soldiers disabled in battle received artificial limbs and braces, as well as occupational and physical therapy as part of “reconstruction programs” that sought to make wounded soldiers fit post-war civilian life.

Since World War I, triage has become a standard practice in emergency medicine. Cultivated in war, the specialized fields of orthotics, prosthetics, occupational therapy, and physical therapy have become essential to the rehabilitation of soldiers and civilians alike.

Veterans Day is the enduring legacy of World War I and its generation. It originated as “Armistice Day” on November 11, 1918 with the purpose of commemorating the end of the conflict.

An earlier version of this commentary – entitled “Honor WWI vets before they’re all gone”–appeared in the November 11, 2005 issue of the Baltimore Sun. It is updated here to commemorate Memorial Day 2008.

The author intended the earlier version to help raise American public awareness of the Great War on Veteran’s Day 2005. Approximately forty American veterans of the Great War were alive then. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, America’s surviving “generation of 1914” counts only one member among its ranks, 107-year-old Frank W. Buckles of Charles Town, West Virginia.

During the past year, newspapers in Australia, Britain, Canada, France, and Germany have covered the imminent loss of their respective “generations of 1914.” Such coverage in the United States has been thin at best, and echoes of the First World War remain distant – as they have traditionally been – in American public memory. How the centenary anniversary of the war will play out in the United States – down to 2014, beyond that year, and against the backdrop of substantial European popular and scholarly activity – will help to define further America’s relationship to this event and memories of it – however fleeting – that reside in American culture.

This commentary is also revised here in part to highlight the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM), which is located within the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology on the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. Itself a memorial of war, the NMHM faces an uncertain future in light of the eventual closure of Walter Reed according to the 2005 U.S. Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). Two images from the NMHM’s Otis Historical Archives illustrate this commentary and, in so doing, draw attention to one of America’s most important public institutions which deserves relocation to the best possible site after Walter Reed closes its gates.

The NMHM – originally the U.S. Army Medical Museum established in 1862 – is dedicated to preserving, collecting, and interpreting human-made objects, anatomical and pathological specimens, and photographs, films, and documents that together chronicle continuity and change in medicine over the centuries, particularly the course of American medicine, military medicine, and current medical research issues. The NMHM’s Otis Historical Archives reflect the rich heritage of the museum as they encompass texts, photos, and films related to American military medicine, particularly the American Civil War period, the World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam conflict. All of the collections of the NMHM are open to researchers by appointment, and further information is available through the museum’s web site.

But this Memorial Day – well before we observe Veterans Day this November – we should pause to remember Frank Buckles, to honor the generation he now represents alone, and to recognize the memorial mission of the National Museum of Health and Medicine as the institution faces the challenge of moving from Walter Reed as it continues to preserve the material remains left behind by Buckles and his 4.5 million comrades.

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