Op Ed: A Reflection on our Freedoms

This fall, I was privileged to speak at the dedication of two Living Memorials remembering the fallen sons and daughters of West Virginia Gold Star families. As I spoke to the crowd, I remembered my own service overseas and how lucky I was to come home in one piece. Many of the men and women who have proudly served our country have not been as fortunate, including several that I have known personally. As we head into the holiday season and in the spirit of being thankful, it is vital we reflect on the blessings we have been given to live in this Nation. Take time to remember the sacrifices made by these men and women who have preserved our freedoms. Their memories serve as a reminder that freedom is never free.

To show we have never forgotten and to carry on the legacy started by Hershel “Woody” Williams, the Gold Star Mothers plan on planting Living Memorials in every county of the State. To date, they have planted five apple tree and two maple tree memorials. Each has 55 trees with one or more dog tags tied on them to represent a fallen West Virginian. We do this because every Gold Star mother will tell you their child dies twice – once at that fatal moment and again when their name is no longer mentioned. At every dedication, Gold Star mothers tell us their child’s name, as well as date and place of death. It is through these Living Memorials that their child’s sacrifice lives on.

As the Commissioner of Agriculture, I am proud to partner with West Virginia Gold Star Mothers in planning and planting these memorials. These plantings not only benefit local communities but serve as a symbol that we will not forget those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. I encourage everyone to visit these beautiful and peaceful sites. Please pick out a tree or two and read aloud the name on the dog tags attached to the tree. Most of us cannot fathom what it is like to be a Gold Star family, but we can show gratitude by remembering those who they have lost. We do not take for granted the brave men and women these families raised.

Our dedication to honoring the fallen, as well as our veterans and those currently serving in the military, isn’t isolated to just these memorials. Through our Veterans and Heroes to Agriculture program, we have made a commitment of working with our partners to create and expand services to our veterans and first responders. We have donated land to build a veteran’s home. Our staff has worked to expand access to mental health services, as well as resources for veterans who wish to transition from the battlefield to farm field. Each day we have staff working on how to help our veterans and first responders in West Virginia. Under my administration, we have made local heroes a top priority.

At the Department, we believe it’s vital to continue to make these men and women a priority given the current state of foreign affairs. From the conflict in Ukraine to the unrest in the Middle East, our men and women in the armed services find themselves in harm’s way. They proudly serve their country as they respond to threats towards the free world. Many of them are unsure of what the future holds for them or their families, so the least we can do is ensure they have the proper resources to transition into civilian life when they return home. This holiday season, I challenge you to show thanks for their service by supporting or volunteering for the veteran community. Keep these men and women in your prayers that they will someday return and, again, share the holidays with loved ones.

Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture protects plant, animal and human health through a variety of scientific, regulatory and consumer protection programs. The Commissioner of Agriculture is one of six statewide elected officials who sits on the Board of Public Works.