They say that old soldiers never die, they just fade away. That’s sort of what’s happened to an event held every year for decades at the District’s World War I Memorial.
The memorial, on the Mall not far from the National World War II Memorial, was dedicated in 1931. Since 1936, representatives of veterans groups have gathered on the third Sunday in May to honor D.C. citizens killed during the Great War. Wreaths are laid. Speeches are made. Taps is blown. Since 1976, Tom Kouyeas, an 84-year-old Korean War-era Army veteran, has chaired the committee that plans the event.
This year, the National Park Service told Tom that because of the sequester, it wouldn’t be able to support the gathering as it has in the past: putting out and taking down chairs, providing a PA system.
“They offered to do it for $1,000 this time,” Tom told me. “We only have about 800-some bucks in our treasury.”
So it won’t happen. I asked Tom if he was sad.
“It’s sort of difficult to give it up when you’ve been with it for so long,” he acknowledged. But he recognizes that plenty of other sacrifices are being made. White House tours are curtailed. The Blue Angels and Thunderbirds aren’t performing as much. . . .
Rebekah Wilson was none too happy to hear about the cancellation. She’s a 29-year-old Army veteran who served in Iraq and lives in Warrenton. For the past few years, she has placed American flags around the memorial. “I was really upset when I found out they weren’t going to have it,” she said. “I mean, I understand having sequestration. I don’t think $1,000 is that much money.”
World War I has somehow become a forgotten war. There is no national memorial to it in Washington despite much back-and-forth over the issue. And Tom is embarrassed the ceremony doesn’t draw much of a crowd these days.
“That’s been the bane of our event,” he said. “We have not had much response.” In recent years, there have been more dignitaries sitting in the memorial than people in the audience.
“Obviously in earlier days — the ’30s, ’40s and during wartime — these events were probably more popular,” he said.
When Tom was in the Army he served stateside. “They kept me here doing office work. I didn’t go overseas to get shot up and killed. I felt I owed them something.”
When he joined his local American Legion, it was a World War I veteran named Jim Murphy who persuaded him to head up the memorial committee.
What was it like, I asked, to hear about World War I from someone who was there?
“Jim Murphy did not speak to me about it personally,” Tom said.
“When the World War II guys came into the American Legion in 1945 and ’46, there was a little animosity between them and the World War I guys. It was before my time, but I had been told that.”
Tom thinks there’s a similar disconnect today as young veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Like all veterans organizations, you’re not getting the younger guys into this,” he said.
Rebekah agrees. She feels that organizations such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the 6th Branch, a volunteer group of recent veterans founded in Baltimore, speak more to her generation than does the VFW or American Legion.
“You’re fighting a different war,” she said. “It’s a different culture. Even the military’s different.”
But one thing is the same: You can still make the ultimate sacrifice and become a name on a monument.
Some veterans groups have told me that they’ll still pay their respects on May 19, the day the event would have taken place. And Memorial Day is May 27. If you’ve never seen the D.C. World War I Memorial, now’s the time for a visit.
Are you a Scout of any stripe: Boy, Girl, Cub or Brownie? Do you play golf? Do you wish you played golf? Then head over some weekday to Sligo Creek Golf Course, a hilly nine-hole course in Silver Spring. A neighbor of mine, E. Dollie Wolverton, is donating greens fees for any Scout 18 or younger who wants to play a round of golf this year, club rental included.
It’s in honor of her late husband, Sidney Wolverton. Sidney was an Eagle Scout and always credited scouting with having a positive impact on his life. When you make your tee time, just give your troop number. For info, call 301-585-6006.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.