Col. Randy Stoeckmann of the 934th Mission Support Group, standing on the south side of the Minnesota State Capitol Mall, told the hundreds who gathered Thursday to dedicate the Minnesota Medal of Honor Memorial that a vintage plane would fly over it any minute .
The crowd of veterans, dignitaries and ordinary Minnesotans blinked at the sky. minutes passed. A delta jet flew overhead – no. Then a loud articulated lorry on a nearby freeway – no. Patience, advised Stoeckmann.
Finally, 13 aircraft streamed over the Capitol: B-25 bombers and a Vietnam-era Douglas Skyraider, a WWII-era torpedo bomber, a Huey helicopter, and more.
The message could be transferred to the powerful, understated memorial to the nation’s highest and most prestigious military decoration: Good things come to those who wait.
“Community support for this memorial just ended,” said Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs chief of staff Mike McElhiney, a member of the memorial’s board of directors and a Green Beret who lost an arm in Afghanistan. “There were some difficulties. There were changes in cost and design, additional and ongoing fundraising that never seemed to end. … But that will remain so for a very long time.”
In 1931, Capitol architect Cass Gilbert completed his final sketch of a future memorial to veterans at the south end of the Capitol Mall. After World War II, a reflecting pool and a statue called the Promise of Youth featuring a woman in an opening lily were erected there.
A decade ago, Stillwater’s John Kraemer began lobbying lawmakers to build a memorial better suited to veterans. Six years ago, when the Medal of Honor Convention was held in the Twin Cities, the Minnesota Medal of Honor Memorial broke ground.
Gov. Tim Walz called Thursday’s dedication a historic moment: “[The memorial]speaks about the values that these Medal of Honor recipients embody, the best that America has to offer.”
The memorial, which includes the Promise of Youth statue, cost just under $1 million, with the majority coming from private funds. There is a garden of contemplation, a courtyard of reflection and two granite walls. There are only six words on the walls, and those are the Medal of Honor values: Patriotism, Citizenship, Courage, Integrity, Sacrifice, Commitment.
Since the Medal of Honor was introduced during the Civil War, 72 Minnesotans have been decorated; none are currently alive. There are 65 living Medal of Honor recipients in the United States.
One of them, Tom Kelley from Boston, was there on Thursday. In 1969, Kelley, then a Navy lieutenant, was in charge of eight river assault boats when they were ambushed by the Viet Cong. The official account of his exploits, in which he continued to issue orders to rescue a disabled vehicle despite being hit in the head by shrapnel and continuing to rain fire, is stunning.
Kelley knows that when children hear about exploits like his, or about the two Minnesota recipients he knew before they died—Leo Thorsness and Don Rudolph—they might be intimidated by their actions. But they shouldn’t be.
“These were ordinary men, guys not looking for fame and glory,” Kelley said. “But I’m here today to tell you that you don’t have to be a soldier, you don’t have to be a first responder to be a hero. You can stand up and be heard when you see something wrong. … These deeds count, and they show heroic civil courage like the deeds of these men.”