Soon after this column appears, the author will be at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, receiving the George Washington Medal of Honor. More exactly, the medal was awarded to the U.S. Battleship Maine Centennial Commission of Key West, by the Freedom's Foundation of Valley Forge. As chairman of the Commission, I will be accepting the award in a ceremony at the very spot that George Washington gathered his rag-tag Continental Army.
Being "honored" with an award of national recognition, in a place that is cherished by all Americans, makes one stop and reflect. The obvious question is why a group like Freedom's Foundation, created by President Eisenhower in 1949, wants to award one of its top prizes to some group in Key West, Florida. And, just what does any of this have to do with Freedom anyhow? Let's take a look.
No one has asked me about Freedom lately. When I was a child, George Washington was a real hero and I learned precisely what motivated him and the other patriots. Together, in a spirit of Unity and Freedom, our forefathers crafted a great Republic amongst a rabble of independent ideas and ideals.
As a child I could recite at a moment's prompting the Bill of Rights and the Articles of the U.S. Constitution. I could actually discriminate among the beliefs of great men like Monroe, Adams, Jefferson and Madison. I learned that Freedom is not one thing but many things each equally as important as the others. Learning about the Constitution and Freedom was like climbing a mountain and reveling in the majestic possibilities that lay out stretched in the valleys below.
The 40 or so members of the Centennial Commission worked for several years, constantly adding members from across the country. Still the focus remained to remember the crew of the battleship who died in a terrible explosion and thereby honoring all Americans who have sacrificed their lives for country and Freedom.
The few grew into hundreds and then into thousands. Still, over a year past, on a daily basis, the young and old want to know more about this moment in American History. They write and call to speak about their Nation.
This writer will accept the George Washington Medal of Honor in the highest spirit of Freedom. Our Commission members will be represented at Valley Forge by a group of Sea Cadets from Reading, Pennsylvania. This is the same group of young Sea Cadets who traveled to Key West in February of 1998 to help us commemorate a moment of American history in a proper and dignified manner.
These youth represent all of us who remembered and who will never forget what Freedom is made up of. Not just the much-lauded benefits but the work, compromises, respect, responsibilities and countless sacrifices that constitute the very foundations of American Freedom.
When I rise to accept the George Washington Medal of Honor, I will be very happy to have these young Sea Cadets as Honor Guard to accompany me to the stage. By their presence I will know that the burden of Freedom has been passed on that a new generation will indeed remember all the things that make us free.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Joe Pais is a former Key West City Commissioner.