WASHINGTON, March 6, 2008 – Defense Department officials honored one of the world’s last living World War I veterans in a ceremony at the Pentagon today.

“I feel honored to be here as a representative of the veterans of WWI and I thank you,” said Frank Woodruff Buckles, 107, who wore multiple service medals and remained in a wheelchair. He received a standing ovation from the mostly military audience.

Buckles, who lives near Charles Town, W.Va., and his family were special guests during the ceremony, in which officials unveiled photographer David DeJonge’s World War I Veterans Exhibit. Defense officials praised the exhibit for putting faces on a war that is largely forgotten and for which its generation is slipping away. DeJonge donated the exhibit, a collection of portraits of nine WWI veterans, for permanent display in the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates thanked Buckles, an Army ambulance driver in France and Britain, and John F. Babcock, a veteran of the U.S. and Canadian armies, who now lives in Spokane, Wash., and could not attend the ceremony. Buckles and Babcock are the last known living WWI soldiers who fought for the United States.

“Whoever views this display will, I am sure, feel a connection to Mr. Buckles and his comrades-in-arms,” Gates said. “We will always be grateful for what they did for their country 90 years ago.”

The portraits show each of the eight men and one woman, surrounded by military medals, books and newspapers of the day. Some are framed by flags and bear bright smiles. Others appear deep in thought. All evoke the patriotism of their service. Seven of the nine have died in the past year, said DeJonge, an independent photographer who began the project in 2006 in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“History is fading away before the very eyes of America,” DeJonge said in an emotional speech. Asked after the ceremony why he chose veterans for the theme of his photography, DeJonge said, “It is imperative to American history. We want our leaders here at the Pentagon…to recognize that the decisions they make here impact people for 90 years or more.”

The project is important because “the First World War is not well understood or remembered in the United States,” Gates said. “There is no big memorial on the National Mall. Hollywood has not turned its gaze in this direction for decades. Yet few events have so markedly shaped the world we live in as the epic blood struggle known as The Great War.”

U.S. involvement in WWI was short in time, long on sacrifice. From the first U.S. Navy ship that was sank in early 1917 until the armistice was signed Nov. 11, 1918, the United States incurred more than 116,000 deaths – more than Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined, Gates noted.

Just as some have marked the 21st Century as having began with the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, the 20th Century “began” with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, Gates said. The war that began with a regional fight for Balkan independence, left the world a redrawn map of Europe and the Middle East, including the demarcation of Iraq. “From Baghdad to Belgrade, the places that mattered then are in the front of our consciousness today.”

Army Secretary Pete Geren compared the sacrifices of WWI veterans to those serving now in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Today, young men and women from our generation, the best of this generation, too, are joined in a war in a far-off land that will shape their future and the world’s future for decades to come,” Geren said. “As with Frank Buckles’ war, someday this war will end and [they] will come home with their lives and the world forever changed.”
The portraits “put a human face on a faceless war,” Geren said. “We are reminded and convicted of the personal debt each of us owes to those who have secured the blessings of our liberties.”

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