Retired Navy Master Chief Britt Slabinski — a Medal of Honor recipient — testifies Thursday, July 13, 2023, before the House Committee on Natural Resources about legislation establishing a National Medal of Honor Memorial.

Retired Navy Master Chief Britt Slabinski — a Medal of Honor recipient — testifies Thursday, July 13, 2023, before the House Committee on Natural Resources about legislation establishing a National Medal of Honor Memorial. (National Medal of Honor Museum/Facebook)

Supporters of a monument in Washington, D.C., to honor the Medal of Honor asked members of Congress on Thursday to grant an exemption to federal law and allow it to be built on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial.

The National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation, which is the driving force behind the monument, has asked for the location because President Abraham Lincoln established the medal in 1861 and presented the first awards in 1863. To do so, Congress would need to provide an exception to a 20-year-old law prohibiting any new commemorative works in what’s known as “the reserve,” a no-build zone that encompasses most of the National Mall.

“This monument is a way for Lincoln's voice of reason to continue gently whispering into the future, admonishing us to focus on the things which unite us and on our shared values,” retired Navy SEAL Britt Slabinski, a Medal of Honor recipient and foundation board member, said to the House Committee on Natural Resources subpanel on federal lands.

By placing the monument near Lincoln’s memorial, the former master chief petty officer said, “It will stand humbly and respectfully as a guard over his legacy and the ideals that held our country together.”

The Medal of Honor is the highest valor award available to military members, and Slabinski said the monument is not intended to honor valor or the 3,560 recipients of the medal but rather the “enduring values which motivate the citizen soldier to risk their life for those around them.”

Reps. Blake Moore, R-Utah, and Marc Veasey, D-Texas, introduced the Hershel “Woody” Williams National Medal of Honor Monument Location Act in April, after their joint effort to get the monument built on federal land in the nation’s capital passed into law in December 2021. They named the bill to honor Williams, who died last year as the last living recipient of the Medal of Honor from World War II.

Williams’s family and Army Lt. Col. Will Swenson, a Medal of Honor recipient, were at the hearing Thursday.

“Now more than ever, it is crucial for us to reconnect with our national roots and create a monument in the heart of our democracy that will serve as a powerful symbol for our enduring gratitude and admiration for our nation's brave and selfless defenders,” Moore said.

The National Mall stretches from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House to the Jefferson Memorial. The National Park Service estimates roughly 32 million people visit each year.

The reserve area of the mall houses roughly 40 monuments, including the memorials to Presidents Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, the World War II Memorial and the Constitution Gardens, and was blocked from further projects through the 2003 Commemorative Works Act.

However, Congress in 2021 approved a monument to the Global War on Terrorism for construction in the reserve. Plans have work scheduled to begin in 2025 at a site north of the Lincoln Memorial and west of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Slabinski also said building the Medal of Honor monument at the Lincoln Memorial would help complete the original plans created to honor Lincoln, which extended to the edge of the reflecting pool and had two additional components.

Only a representative of the National Parks Service, which is responsible for the National Mall, spoke Thursday in opposition of the location. Deputy Director Mike Reynolds also opposed a bill that would grant an exemption for a monument to the women’s suffrage movement to be built in the reserve.

Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., who introduced the bill for the suffrage monument, said the National Mall has 699 acres of open green space. Reynolds argued that space is heavily used.

“What space we have, even though it looks blank on a map, is pretty busy,” he said.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., asked Slabinski what he thought of the park service’s opposition to the monument’s placement.

“What kind of message do you think that sends to you and fellow veterans when the park service takes this stance?” he asked.

“The Park Service is just doing what you asked them to do. So, they're following through on that. If you tell them you want to change that, they will follow through on that,” Slabinski said. “For us, we're just asking you that ‘Hey, let's be on this mission here to try to inspire America a little bit more with the creation in this monument.’ ”

Outside of Washington, the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation is constructing a museum in Arlington, Texas, where it will hold a ceremony next week as the museum’s final steel beam is put into place. It is expected to open in 2025.

The projected cost of the monument, museum and leadership institute is roughly $300 million, according to the foundation. About $235 million has been raised.

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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