Brett Reistad of Manassas is the national commander of the American Legion.
In 1919, Gold Star mothers of Prince George’s County wanted to create a monument for their 49 sons who fell in World War I. They chose the shape of a cross, copying the style of the headstones that stood watch over the graves of their sons, buried on European battlefields a world away. That monument, what we now know as the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial, has stood watch over their memory for nearly 100 years.
The American Legion has a particular interest in the memorial. Our emblem is emblazoned on the memorial, at its very center. Some of the men who formed the American Legion carried the vision of these Gold Star mothers into reality. The local post took over the memorial project. In 1925, after years of work, the American Legion dedicated the memorial to the memory of the 49. Since then, the American Legion has continued to hold patriotic commemorative events there, recalling the service and sacrifice of those of our ranks who did not return home.
For nearly 100 years, the families of these 49 sons of Prince George’s County have considered the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial their sons’ gravestone. But last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the memorial violates the Constitution and must be removed.
Because the American Legion seeks to honor and remember our brothers and sisters in arms, we could not let this decision stand. We appealed to the Supreme Court and were pleased with its recent decision to hear our case, The American Legion, et al. v. American Humanist Association, et al.
The Gold Star mothers and the American Legion who erected this gravestone to the 49 sons of Prince George’s County knew that we would forget the service of their sons and fellow service members unless the living honored their sacrifice. We cannot allow their memory to be bulldozed.
Those opposed to the memorial would have us erase the memory of the service and sacrifice of these 49 fallen servicemen of Prince George’s County. If this gravestone is bulldozed, it’s only a matter of time before the wrecking ball turns on the two World War I crosses in Arlington National Cemetery and the perhaps hundreds of other memorials across the country. We cannot and we will not allow that to happen.
This memorial is more than concrete and bronze. It is the fixed symbol of 49 men who gave everything to preserve our freedom.
Men such as grenadier Essell Maxwell, who posthumously received the Croix de Guerre when he sacrificed himself to silence a machine gun crew wreaking havoc on his comrades. For Cordelia Stewart, Essell’s mother, the memorial was her son’s grave. Her son’s body could not be recovered because it could not be located on the battlefield.
Soldiers such as Private John Henry Seaburn, for whom a post of the American Legion was named in 1938. He served in the historic “Red Hand” Division, a segregated unit that fought heroically to preserve a better future for his family back home.
Or Howard Morrow, who was only 18 at the time of his death 100 years ago last month. After his death, the Army bestowed upon him the Distinguished Service Cross for going headlong into intense enemy fire to rescue and bring to safety a wounded comrade.
On the first anniversary of Morrow’s death, his mother, sisters and brothers wrote a poem of remembrance in the local newspaper:
Our thoughts are always wandering
To the grave so far away
Where our dear son and brother is lying
In his peaceful and lonely grave.
Oh for the sound of a silent voice
And the touch of the hands that are still
These are just a few of the 49 men honored by the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial. The American Legion formed when their surviving comrades returned to America after the Great War. These men never had opportunity to formally join the list of the now nearly 2 million members of the American Legion. But we have not forgotten them, nor will we.
This spring, our lawyers at First Liberty Institute and Jones Day will present our best legal arguments to the Supreme Court — the last, best hope for preserving this gravestone to the 49 men of Prince George’s County.
We echo the words of Judge Harvie Wilkinson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit who, in disagreeing with the decision of his court to invalidate this memorial, wrote, “The dead cannot speak for themselves. But may the living hear their silence.”
We at the American Legion hear their silence and pledge our fullest voice in defense of our memorial saluting their valor, endurance, courage, and devotion.