Memorials to famous Kentuckians adorn the Capitol Rotunda.
Portraits of Supreme Court justices. Statues of Abraham Lincoln and others in the Rotunda. The Kentucky Women Remembered gallery. Busts of Colonel Sanders and “Happy” Chandler. Porcelain miniatures honoring Kentucky’s first ladies.
All of these pay tribute – deservedly – to heroes who’ve dedicated their lives in the service of others.
But recently we made a long-overdue addition to this repository of all that Kentuckians revere and respect.
In a riveting ceremony that honored the most courageous service of all, we unveiled a bronze plaque identifying Kentucky’s 60 Medal of Honor recipients, including the only woman to have earned the Medal.
The plaque – a decorated bronze tablet 42 inches by 50 inches – will be displayed on the exterior marble wall of the rotunda just inside the main entrance to the building.
We were privileged to have attending the ceremony three of Kentucky’s five living recipients of the Medal, which represents America’s highest award for valor in action.
U.S. Army Pfc. Ernie West, who earned his medal during a battle near Sataeri, Korea, in 1952.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Don Jenkins, then a private first class, who earned his medal during a battle in 1969 in the Kien Phong Province of the Republic of Vietnam.
And U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Dakota Meyer, then a corporal, who earned his medal in 2009 during a battle in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan.
Listening to their Medal citations being read, and thinking about the courage they showed, I felt a range of emotions.
Anguish and grief, at the violence that exacts such a horrible toll on humanity.
Relief, that America and all the world’s free peoples have warriors like these to protect us.
Awe, at our recipients’ unselfishness and sacrifice.
And pride – as a Kentuckian, as a military veteran myself, and as governor.
From the early days of the Bluegrass State – in fact, even before Kentucky officially became a state – people who live here have embodied the commitment of military service, stepping forward time and again to defend this nation and its ideals.
Kentuckians have gone wherever that service has taken us – north to the River Raisin, west to the Indian campaigns, and across the ocean to the trenches on the Western Front, the beaches of France, the rugged terrain of Korea, the jungles of Vietnam, the desert sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan.
Our 335,000 living veterans are testament to that deep tradition.
I appreciate the efforts of Rep. Tanya Pullin, Sen. Jack Westwood and others to pass legislation in 2011 authorizing the plaque to call attention to our Medal recipients, because they rarely do so themselves.
In fact, Medal recipients generally prefer the focus to be placed elsewhere.
They didn’t seek the Medal, didn’t ask for it, didn’t lobby for it and were usually surprised to receive it.
That’s because you neither compete for the Medal nor win it.
You earn it.
You earn it with blood, courage and concern for your fellow soldier that thrusts aside concern for your own safety.
You earn it for performance in situations that would leave most of us trembling in place.
Sixty such stories accompany the names on Kentucky’s plaque honoring those recipients born in Kentucky or who entered service while living here. To learn more about those stories and the Medal of Honor, visit www.cmohs.org.
Every time I pass this memorial I will remember the chilling stories underlying the reason each name is inscribed there.
But I will also feel hope, because the power of our enemies pales in the face of the courage, sacrifice, and dedication to duty demonstrated by these men and woman.