Richard Lewis used only his ball cap — the one that tells the world that he was awarded a Bronze Star — to protect his head from the cold and relentless drizzle as he listened to Gen. Colin Powell stand before him Saturday and say that he and veterans like him represent the best of America.
That they deserve a nation’s love, admiration and gratitude. That they deserve to have their stories heard.
And now, in Columbus, there’s a place for that: the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, which opened to the public Saturday with all the military pomp and circumstance that was to be expected. About 2,000 people — many battling the wind to hold on to their umbrellas and most wearing free ponchos provided by orqanizers for the outdoor ceremony held at Dorrian Green on West Broad Street, across from the museum — packed the park for almost two hours of speeches that culminated with the official ribbon cutting.
Lewis, an Operation Desert Storm veteran who earned a Bronze Star while serving with the Army Reserve’s 656th Transportation Company, said the day’s events were "exhilarating" and the museum’s mission is a vital one.
"Our younger generations don’t really understand what it takes to protect our country," said Lewis, 54, of the East Side. "They see war in video games, but they just don’t know. For a museum to tell some veterans’ stories and show appreciation? That’s an honor for all of us."
Powell, a former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brought the crowd to its feet with an emotional and impassioned speech about patriotism, duty and honor.
He said that veterans, both in war and peacetime, protect everything that this country’s Founding Fathers established in 1776.
"Forty-two million Americans have served in uniform in the history of our nation," Powell said, adding that the museum "will show their faces, their letters, their fears, their bravery, their anxious families waiting for them to return. You will hear their stories, you will see their photos and their videos.
"And you will be moved to ask, ‘Where do we get such patriots?’" he said. "The answer is ... from everywhere. From city and farm, from every color and origin. They represent the rainbow that is America, the strength and goodness of America."
The 53,000-square-foot museum — which cost $82 million — doesn’t pay tribute to any one war or service branch, but instead tells the experience of veterans through individual stories. The idea germinated more than six years ago, the vision of both the late Marine fighter pilot, astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn (who died in 2016) and central Ohio businessman and philanthropist Leslie H. Wexner. Wexner and his wife, Abigail, donated $40.6 million to the project.
In his remarks Saturday, Wexner said the current divisive climate in this country gives him pause, but he and his wife speak often about how fortunate they are to live in a land that affords such opportunity. He referenced the Declaration of Independence and its guarantee of the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. That document, he said, provides the "what" in everything America stands for. And it is the American military, he said, that provides the "how."
He spoke of how the museum hopes to eventually record the story of every veteran who visits and create an "electronic warehouse" where all those stories can be preserved. And he also appeared to break some news: He said there are plans to build a second building for veterans, focused on education, but gave no additional details.
"This is not the end," he said of the museum. "This is the beginning."
After the ceremony, the the museum’s developer, Guy Worley, CEO of the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation, wouldn’t comment except to echo Wexner’s sentiments about this being a beginning.
But Saturday wasn’t about the future. It was about the past, and honoring those who have made a difference in it.
Glenn’s son, David Glenn, told the crowd of a vivid memory from when he was 7 and his family was driving to Columbus.
"My mother began to sob and sob because my dad was going off to fight in Korea and she didn’t know if she would see him again," Glenn said, choking up. "Being willing to fight and die to protect your people ... that willingness is so powerfully expressed in John 15:13." Then, he quoted the scripture: ‘There is no greater love than this — that a man should lay down his life for his friends.’
"Reflecting on that willingness, that love, is what made my father choke up when he talked about his war experiences," Glenn said, noting of the museum, "I wish he was here to see this."
Other speakers included retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter, the president and CEO of the museum; and members of Ohio’s congressional delegation who worked to get its national designation — Sens. Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown and Reps. Joyce Beatty and Steve Stivers.
U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, an officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and the son of an Army artillery commander, told the crowd that veterans are "ordinary citizens who have performed extraordinary deeds."
He said the museum is a place that will make certain that those who protect our country are never forsaken.
"We owe our warriors a debt we can never repay, but we can remember them for what they did," Wilkie said. "Future generations can learn about our warriors here."
Among those listening in the crowd was 80-year-old Charles Williams, a veteran of the Air Force and Army. Trying to stay warm bundled under coats and blankets and wearing a camouflage hat and gloves, the military policeman and firefighter who fought in Vietnam couldn’t say much about the day. Dementia and Alzheimer’s stole that away.
But his wife, Selina, said that even with the less-than-ideal weather, she never once thought about not bringing her husband down from their Northeast Side home for the ceremony and a tour of the museum.
"He deserves this. They all deserve this," she said. "Not enough people understand what these veterans went through. This is overdue."
Mike Stevens agreed.
The former Navy submariner and his wife, Kim, rode their motorcycle from Washington Court House in southwestern Ohio to join maybe 20 other Patriot Guard riders as part of a ceremonial procession that kicked things off Saturday (Weather canceled a flyover and jump by the Army’s Gold Knights parachute team).
"This is living history," said Stevens, who spent three years on active duty in the 1980s and stayed a reservist until 2007. "I think it’s important to keep these memories alive. Especially these older World War II veterans. I’d listen to them talk forever about what they’ve seen. But someday, we veterans won’t be here to tell you our stories even if you’ll listen."
Free tickets may still be available for the museum, 300 W. Broad St., for Sunday only. Visit www.nationalvmm.org for information.
Starting Wednesday, the museum will be open 10 a.m. 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Adult admission costs $17, with discounts for seniors, veterans and active-duty.