VA Secretary Robert Wilkie Traces Family's Roots to World War I

In a Wednesday, June 27, 2018 file photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie is sworn in at the start of a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee nominations hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
In a Wednesday, June 27, 2018 file photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie is sworn in at the start of a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee nominations hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

When VA Secretary Robert Wilkie took the oath of office from Vice President Mike Pence on July 30, he placed his left hand on the 1916 Army-issue combat Bible his wife's grandfather carried in France during World War I.

Wilkie has related the oath-taking story before, but he told Military.com on Thursday of the inscription 18-year-old Pvt. Onslow Bullard, his wife's grandfather, had written on the back of the Bible in case he fell in battle: "If found, please return to my mother."

Wilkie spoke in a brief interview ahead of a ceremony at the new National World War I Memorial near the White House to underline his family's deeply felt connections to the events surrounding the centennial of what was called the "Great War."

His own great-grandfather, Capt. A.D.Somerville, left a small-town law practice in Mississippi to join the 320th Field Artillery Regiment of the 82nd Infantry Division in World War I, Wilkie said.

In his estimation, the remembrances of World War I may have focused too much on the "generals and the colonels" who led the fighting and not enough on the soldiers who bore the brunt of the vicious battles in the trenches -- "the horrors of that kind of fighting, the effects of the new weapons," he said.

In his formal remarks at the ceremony, Wilkie expanded on that theme. He recalled a recent visit to the "Rowan Oak" home of author William Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi, and cited Faulkner's tribute to the ordinary soldier in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

"He was speaking to the soul of the soldier," Wilkie said of Faulkner. In his speech, Faulkner said the soldier must abide "the agony and the sweat of the human spirit, not for glory but to make out of the material of the human spirit something that was not there before."

The soldier's values were "love, honor, pride and compassion," and "no matter what the soldier sees, no matter how terrible it is, it is he who declines to accept the end of man. It is the soldier who always endures," Faulkner said.

The ceremony itself featured the presentation of 50 wreaths, representing all 50 states, at Pershing Park, named for World War I commander Gen. John J. Pershing, on Pennsylvania Ave. off 14th Street.

The U.S. World War I Centennial Commission billed the event Thursday as a "first look" at the site for the memorial in a corner of the park that had been an old skating rink. The memorial itself was curtained off and will be unveiled at a later event.

In representations shown last year, the memorial was depicted as a 65-foot long, 11-foot-tall bas relief showing scenes from the war and the homecoming.

At the event Thursday, Joe Weishaar, the 28-year-old architect who designed the memorial in collaboration with sculptor Sabin Howard, said the work is meant to tell the stories of the ordinary soldiers and their families.

"People ask, 'Where's the tanks, where's the airplanes,' " Weishaar told Military.com, but "this is a work of stories" and of "how this nation changed."

The official statistics on World War I show that a total of 4.7 million Americans served. Of that total, about two million deployed, 204,000 were wounded and 116,516 were killed.

In his remarks, Terry Hamby, a Vietnam veteran and chairman of the Centennial Commission, said the memorial is intended to "correct a long overdue debt to our 'doughboys' " of World War I.

It will be the first national memorial in the nation's capital for World War I since it ended with an armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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