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A gift for the last doughboy's 110th birthday

By Jay Rockefeller, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jay Rockefeller: Frank Buckles is 110 years old, the last surviving doughboy from WWI
  • He drove ambulance in WWI, survived three years in Japanese POW camp in WWII
  • Buckles is behind an effort to rebuild the decrepit marker to WWI vets in D.C.
  • A national memorial would finally honor all who fought in the Great War, Rockefeller says

Editor's note: Jay Rockefeller is the senior United States senator from West Virginia.

(CNN) -- Today, on the 110th birthday of Frank Buckles, it's worth pausing for a minute to reflect on the sweep of this man's remarkable life.

He served in the ambulance corps during World War I in France and Germany, where he evacuated wounded soldiers from the horrific battlefield. As if that weren't enough, he was drawn into World War II, where he survived three years in a Japanese POW camp after his freighter was captured.

Buckles also happens to be the last surviving doughboy, yet another distinction for a man who was able to join the Army at just 16. Frank Buckles was on this Earth before we had washing machines, before X-rays, before air conditioning, before TV or plastic, even before sliced bread. He is, in short, amazing and has been alive long enough to inspire awe at his longevity.

Despite his long life and inspiring story, and the fact that he is now an icon in the military family and modest about his achievements, Buckles is first and foremost a good person and a kind friend. To this day, Buckles lives on his farm in Jefferson County, West Virginia; it was only a few years ago that he stopped driving his tractor.

Frank Buckles represents our final link to a generation that built a legacy as defenders of the free world.
--Jay Rockefeller
Last living U.S. WWI vet turns 110

I, along with every West Virginian, am proud to have him as a neighbor in Charles Town. With Buckles marking his 110th birthday this week, I believe it's appropriate to once again talk about the need for a significant memorial commemorating World War I on the National Mall.

Like others who have visited the ribbon of memorials that marks the nation's capital, when Buckles traveled to Washington, he was struck by the neglected and decrepit state of the existing marker dedicated to WWI veterans.

Erected in 1931, the District of Columbia War Memorial commemorates the lives of the 499 residents of the District of Columbia who gave their lives in that war. It was never intended to be a national memorial to the war.

Buckles, and others, have rallied around the idea of restoring this memorial and rededicating it as a National and District of Columbia World War I Memorial. It would forever honor all those Americans who served in the Great War.

Although we will all toast Buckles this week, I can think of no better way to pay tribute to him and other veterans of WWI than by moving this project forward. And we should move quickly.

Erected in 1931, the District of Columbia War Memorial ... was never intended to be a national memorial to the war.
--Jay Rockefeller
2009: Oldest vet on WWI memorial
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The year 2014 marks the centennial of the start of World War I. Almost 5 million Americans served in WWI, and 116,516 died. All the other major conflicts of this century -- like World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War -- justly have memorials on the National Mall.

I believe there's nothing more important than expressing our appreciation for the sacrifices that Buckles and all World War I veterans endured for our country. Buckles is a representative of the extraordinary men who fought in the numerous battles of the Great War.

Buckles represents our final link to a generation that built a legacy as defenders of the free world in the first large-scale global conflict of this modern century. That legacy, and our respect for all those WWI veterans, deserves a permanent place on our National Mall, and I hope we can move toward that goal this year.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Jay Rockefeller.