Valor. Endurance. Courage. Devotion.
Those words are emblazoned on the sides of the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial, along with the names of the 49 men from Prince George’s County, Md., who made the ultimate sacrifice during the first world war.
The words also illustrate the five-year battle waged by The American Legion to ensure that the memorial was not removed from where it has stood peacefully since The American Legion and Gold Star Mothers dedicated it in 1925. Thanks to a 7-2 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, the memorial will remain in place and Legionnaires will continue to hold Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies at the site as they have for decades.
William Speight, American Legion county commander of Prince George’s County and a member of Post 196, said simply, “We won this fight and the peace cross isn’t going anywhere.”
More than 100 American Legion Family members, Bladensburg residents and others turned out for the first ceremony at the base of the memorial since the Supreme Court decision. At least three World War II veterans attended the ceremony.
“This is great, seeing everyone come out, especially the older veterans from World War II,” Speight said. “It’s wonderful to see a blend of Americans — black, white, Hispanic, doing something together. That’s what’s great about our country. When we come together, you can’t stop us.”
Steve Weitz, a Coast Guard veteran who has lived in Bladensburg for 42 years, referred to the memorial as “the heart and soul of the community.”
Noting it has stood for nearly a century, Weitz said, “Everyone here knows where the Peace Cross is. It’s very well-known throughout the state. We’re so grateful to keep it here. The whole country is grateful because this would have set a precedent to take down the crosses in Arlington and all the other military cemeteries.”
In a day designed to thank and honor veterans, the gratitude extended to all of those who defended the memorial, including The American Legion’s legal teams at First Liberty Institute and Jones Day.
“Every year we come here for Veterans Day and Memorial Day,” Weitz said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like if the cross was torn down. We’re so thankful for the lawyers who saved it. They never gave up.”
Roger Byron, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, said the high court ruling is having an impact well beyond eastern Maryland.
“This was obviously a huge win for veterans across the United States,” said Byron, a Navy veteran and member of The American Legion in Texas. “This win not only protects the Peace Cross, but it sets a new standard in the law to protect veterans memorials across the country from similar attacks.”
Less than five months after the ruling was issued, there are already examples of its reach.
“The case is a precedent-setting matter,” Byron said. “It has already been used to reverse one decision that struck down a memorial that was used for Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies. We expect it to become a landmark victory in defending veterans and religious liberties across the United States.”
Byron pointed out the Legion’s long history with the memorial and noted that it will continue.
“It’s been a privilege working with the Legion on this,” Byron said. “What was at stake with this litigation was not just this peace cross, but all memorials like it from coast to coast, including those in Arlington National Cemetery. Now we have a standard in place. And veterans can rest assured that they can honor their own, they can honor their fallen the way they have done from time in memoriam, using the symbols they have always used.”
While the 40-foot-high memorial’s location is secure, more work remains to be done. Cracks have formed. A tarp covers the top to prevent further damage from the weather. The memorial’s supporters said they would be working to secure funding to restore the memorial and hinted at a rededication ceremony.
But Veterans Day was a day of gratitude and celebration.
Even though Philip Holdcraft has emceed more than 15 ceremonies at the memorial, this year’s Veterans Day event was special.
“I wanted to thank all the people who fought the battle for us,” said Holdcraft, a past commander of Post 131 in Maryland. “They were always there when we asked them. Now that the Peace Cross is going to stay, I just wanted to thank all those who helped out.”
Holdcraft reflected back to the Legion’s Preamble, which includes the phrase, “To preserve the memories and incidents of our associations in all wars.”
“That’s what The American Legion does,” he said. “We support our veterans and our veterans families.”
Christopher DiPompeo, an attorney with Jones Day, worked on the case for five years. His goal was simple: “to tell the story and let the Supreme Court know what this means to the people of Bladensburg, to those who served. Here’s to another century of gathering here to honor veterans.”
DiPompeo was honored to work on behalf of the nation’s past, present and future veterans.
“It means a lot, especially on a day like today when we honor veterans,” he said. “I’m glad to know that, while I did not serve, we were able to do something to preserve the memories of those who did, especially those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.”