In Washington, it seems like there is a commission for everything. Mostly they produce reports no one reads. But there is one commission that has established a ...
In Washington, it seems like there is a commission for everything. Mostly they produce reports no one reads. But there is one commission that has established a string of permanent accomplishments you can see, touch and feel. It is the American Battle Monuments Commission. This year it celebrates 100 years in business. For a review, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Commission Secretary Charles Djou.
Tom Temin And we should point out, it’s not really a commission in the sense you usually think about it. You are a small federal agency.
Charles Djou Yes, that’s correct. ABMC is an independent federal agency established in 1923 in the wake of World War I. And yes, this year is our 100th anniversary.
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Tom Temin And how many people work there?
Charles Djou We have a little over 500 individuals. The ABMC, we’re very, very proud and humbled. Our responsibility is to maintain and honor the service and sacrifice of America’s armed services around the world. We manage America’s 26 American cemeteries and battlefields, 32 memorials across 17 countries throughout the world. And for me, it’s a humbling honor to be able to lead this wonderful, wonderful agency.
Tom Temin And just explain for us the process here a little bit, because often the establishment of memorials like, say, the World War II Memorial, which is, gosh, it’s not that new anymore, but a lot of controversy, a lot of planning, a lot of disagreement. They get built often with private funds or part federal funds and part private funds. So how do they come under the purview of the commission? Do they? What’s your relationship to that whole process?
Charles Djou That’s a good question. So a couple of things. First, when our agency was established in the wake of World War I, our first chairman was General John Pershing, who, of course, led American forces in the First World War. The thought process was how do we properly take care of America’s war dead in Europe from the First World War, and as well as how do we properly memorialize the battles that America had fought during the First World War? Well, the ABMC was created by Congress, signed into law by then President Harding, to take care of and manage that. And so we now have all the battlefield cemeteries from the First World War. And then, of course, after the Second World War, those battlefield cemeteries also. And then we also manage and have created numerous memorials to America’s armed services around the world. Most are in Europe, but not all. And it’s interesting you should mention the World War II Memorial here in Washington, D.C. That also is a memorial that ABMC helped design create for most, but not all of the memorial war memorials that are federal major memorials in the United States. ABMC has built it, but then after construction, we hand it over to the National Park Service. So the World War II memorial, the World War I memorial, as well as the Korean War Memorial, were all built by the ABMC, but today are managed by the National Park Service. You had asked in terms of funding. So my agency is funded, of course, by the federal government and American taxpayers. The construction of a lot of these memorials, it was a shared partnership for the domestic memorials between the US Congress funding most of it, but not all of it. And the balance being funded from private donors. And that certainly was the case with World War I, World War II, and the Korean War Memorial. The overseas memorials, on the other hand, are almost all entirely funded by the United States taxpayers.
Tom Temin There must be a little diplomacy involved there, because it’s paid by taxpayers, but it is on another country’s soil. And so when you want to go in and do something, there’s probably got to be a little give and take. Fair to say?
Charles Djou Yes, that is fair to say. And most of the instances for our agency, the host nation is extraordinarily grateful for the service and sacrifice of America’s armed forces. Most of these memorials, communities are extraordinarily grateful for what America did around the world. Whether it is our memorials that say Shutter tree, which is in France. These are all examples of memorials where the French people and the local villages were very, very grateful for America’s service and sacrifice. What tends to come up is decades after the conflict and the battle, there are sometimes things that we need to discuss with the local government regarding traffic, maintenance of the surrounding areas, which the US government does not have control over. Those are the things that tend to crop up these days. But as a broad general statement of the ABMC, I’m very happy to say, is very, very warmly welcomed. And our agency, may I just say, invites all of your listeners, all of your viewers, please come visit our sites around the world. I think there are not enough Americans who really understand what America has done around the world for democracy and liberty.
Tom Temin We’re speaking with Charles Djou. He is secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission. And by the way, do we have any monuments or memorials in countries that we were formerly at war with? Like, for example, is there anything in Vietnam?
Charles Djou That too is a good question. So my agency in previous decades, my predecessors made a conscious decision not to have memorials in Germany or Japan, where America has had some conflicts with. We do have an American cemetery, a memorial in the Philippines dedicated to most of our war dead from the Philippines. I knew America’s history in the Philippines can be a little bit controversial. We also have a site in Mexico City from the Mexican-American War. That too, I know is a tiny bit controversial. But no, nothing in Germany or Japan. We have had some very, very preliminary discussions of maybe perhaps doing something in Vietnam. But right now there is no site in Vietnam, nor do we have a site, say, for example, in Afghanistan or in Iraq.
Tom Temin Sure. I think the Vietnamese are more mad at the French to this day than they are at the Americans. So maybe that could happen someday. And how exactly are you commemorating 100 years?
Charles Djou We’re very excited. So we’ve done a number of events around the world for our agency. We commissioned a film celebrating the 100 years of the ABMC. We have been hosting this film at events throughout across the United States. For example, we’ve had events at the World War II Museum in New Orleans, the World War I museum over in Kansas City, the Pritzker in Chicago. We’re having an event coming up in New York City. Another event we’re having at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego, California. So these are all activities that we’re doing. And of course, around the world that all of our our American cemeteries, we’ve had bigger and smaller events. But this is something we’re very excited about. Because you’re right, you began this program saying that there’s not too many Americans who know about our agency, but our agency is very proud to share the story of American service sacrifice and what American service members have done. And we’d like more Americans to know the story as agency secretary. The communities in the host nations are very familiar with what America has done for liberty. But too often not enough Americans know what Americans have done. That’s something we’re trying to rectify.
Tom Temin And in the management of cemeteries, that’s a shared responsibility. I mean, the military itself operates a couple of the cemeteries like Arlington. And then you’ve got Veterans Affairs, which has its domestic cemeteries around the United States, and then you have cemeteries overseas that you maintain and operate. Do you ever get your heads together on best practices in how to maintain these types of sacred grounds?
Charles Djou So Arlington National Cemetery, Veterans Affairs, our sister agencies, we’re very happy to work with and collaborate with. And you’re exactly right, looking forward to doing best practices with them. The core dividing line is the ABMC. We handle the cemeteries outside the United States, whereas Veterans Affairs handles the ones inside the United States. So we also have the added additional element that my agency cooperates and works with my sister agencies internationally. So as for example, Great Britain’s Commonwealth War graves of France’s own act, which are the similar agencies to my agency for France and Great Britain, we work with them also. So it’s both collaborating with America’s other sister agencies, as well as our international sister agencies.
Tom Temin And just briefly, how did you get to this job? What’s your background?
Charles Djou Oh, so in terms of my background, I have previously served in Congress. I represented what is First Congressional District, had been involved in way politics for a number of years. But much more importantly, I am an Afghanistan war veteran. I have served for 23 years in the Army Reserve. I’m a colonel in the Army Reserve. And I think through this connection, politics with the Army, my interest in military history, I am very humbled to have been appointed by the president to this position.
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