A small crowd of about forty people gathered Wednesday morning this week outside the American History museum to observe Veterans Day by planting a baby oak tree. The small tree commemorates United States war veterans who have been honored with one of the most prestigious military awards of all—the Medal of Honor.
After an official military flag ceremony and the National Anthem, the sole Medal of Honor recipient in attendance, Brian Thacker, delivered his blessings for the tree.
"There's something about a tree that has a spiritual meaning," he said. "My prayer for it is that it will be here in 100 years. That it will not have seen all the trials and tribulations we've seen over the past 100 years. That it is a more peaceful century, and that its acorns feed a lot of squirrels." Thacker won was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1973 for evacuating his troops in Vietnam and then staying behind for 8 days without food or water to evade enemy patrols.
"Every morning is a good morning," said Thacker.
Oak trees have a long symbolic history within the military. They appeared on the very first Medal of Honor design, and today's military award recipients receive a silver encrusted cluster of oak leaves and acorns along with their medal. Smithsonian horticulturist Brett McNish described the oak as a symbol of "valor, resilience, strength and permanence."
"The freedoms we enjoy (and sometimes take for granted) come at a very high price," said McNish, who came up with an idea to distribute soil from battlefields where American soldiers have fought.
One by one, war veterans and members of the Medal of Honor Society anointed the new tree with canisters of soil from one of 16 different battlefields and 11 different wars involving the United States. Beginning with soil from the site of the Battle of Antietam to Kabul, Afghanistan, where soldiers are still fighting today, the soil will now fertilize the new oak tree on the National Mall.
This post was updated November 15, 2010.