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West Virginia leaders pay tribute to Woody Williams

REMEMBERING WOODY – Hershel “Woody” Williams receives applause during Gov. Jim Justice’s 2020 State of the State address in the House of Delegates chamber. -- Contributed

CHARLESTON – Tributes came in Wednesday from West Virginia’s state and congressional officials upon the news of the passing of Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last living World War II Medal of Honor recipient.

The family of Woody Williams released a statement through his foundation that Williams, 98, died early Wednesday morning at the VA Medical Center in Huntington, a facility that bears his name.

In a statement Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice and first lady Cathy Justice asked all West Virginians to be in prayer for Williams’ family, friends, and the entire military and veterans community Williams served.

“Pray that, while the weight of this loss is profound, we all will be able to take solace in the fact that Woody’s contributions to our nation inspired generations, cultivated similar bravery, and saved lives,” Justice said. “Woody Williams will go down in history as one of the greatest West Virginians who ever lived, and we salute him for everything he gave to our state and our nation.”

Justice said he has offered to allow Williams to lie in state in the rotunda of the Capitol as well as a state funeral. A proclamation ordering flags to half-staff will be issued once officials are notified of the funeral arrangements.

“Woody was part of what was undoubtedly the greatest generation that ever lived. The bravery displayed by men like Woody Williams across America and throughout West Virginia will likely never be matched, and we have to make sure their sacrifices are never forgotten,” he said.

“We are deeply saddened by the death of WWII veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams,” said Edward Diaz, cabinet secretary of the state Department of Veterans’ Assistance, echoing Justice’s comments. “He was a true hero who advocated for veterans long after he was discharged from active duty. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”

U.S. Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., held a virtual briefing with reporters Wednesday morning to express their condolences to Williams’ family and to praise Williams for his bravery and volunteer work.

“I don’t think there’s a person in West Virginia that did not know Woody or know what he stood for and what he fought for, but also the veterans and the service members from West Virginia and all over the country have lost a true champion,” Manchin said.

“It’s a sad day for West Virginia and for the nation,” Capito said. “We are going to miss Woody so much, and our young folks in West Virginia and everybody needs to do a great salute and send off to him. Certainly in knowing Woody and hearing him speak, he’s a very spiritual person, so we know in our hearts that Woody is in a great place right now, and he is getting to inspire the folks in heaven now as he did here on earth.”

Capito’s father, the late former Republican governor Arch Moore, was also a World War II veteran who suffered combat injuries that required reconstructive surgery of his jaw. Capito said talking with Williams and hearing him speak reminded her of her father.

“As the daughter of a World War II veteran myself, it brought me to tears many times to hear what Woody was doing, how he felt and, and the patriotism that he always felt,” Capito said. “The other cherished memories for me are when Woody would be addressing a crowd and giving a speech on his love of country, his dedication to freedom, and his imploring really young people to join in the cause that he joined at a very young age.”

Manchin said he visited with Williams in the hospital Sunday and arranged for Denis McDonough, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to speak with Williams by phone.

“(Williams) was lucid. He was able to tell me exactly what he wanted and what he was thinking of and all the proud things that we were able to accomplish together,” Manchin said. “Woody had a very, very detailed conversation with the Secretary on what he was hoping for.”

Manchin said Williams expressed his relief that the VA’s Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, the nine-member commission tasked with reviewing recommendations to close or reduce services at VA medical centers across the nation, had been halted. The VA’s AIR Report recommended reducing services at the Huntington and Clarksburg VA medical centers, as well as at the Beckley VA Medical Center once a new facility is constructed.

Manchin, Capito, and a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators said Monday that they would not approve any of President Joe Biden’s nominations for the AIR Committee, effectively ending further consideration of the recommendations.

“(Williams) was very happy that the AIR Commission is going to be absolutely dismantled and killed,” Manchin said. “I have been working on that, trying to make sure that we had Democrats and Republicans alike getting rid of this AIR Commission. It would be crippling to our services in our hospitals in rural America, especially rural West Virginia. He was very happy about that.”

Williams, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Iwo Jima in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, spent the remainder of his life working on behalf of veterans and Gold Star families who have lost loved ones who died while serving in the military.

The Woody Williams Foundation has worked to build Gold Star Family memorials across the U.S., including on the grounds of the State Capitol Building. Williams was also pivotal in rallying support for the Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery in Dunbar. The cemetery opened in 2012.

Other tributes to Williams came in from members of West Virginia’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Woody is a hero in every sense of the word. I am grateful to have called him my friend,” said 3rd District Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va. “Woody will be sorely missed, but his legacy of service, dedication, and patriotism will live on through the countless lives he’s touched. May God be with his family during this time, and may we never forget the unyielding commitment Woody had for the United States of America. God bless Woody Williams.”

“West Virginia has lost one of its finest sons. Woody Williams was a true American hero from the Greatest Generation, and I am saddened by his death,” said 2nd District Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va. “Woody dedicated his life to service from the Battle of Iwo Jima to being an advocate for veterans up until his final days. His legacy will live on in West Virginia and beyond. My prayers are with his family and friends during this time. Rest in peace, Woody.”

“The loss of Woody Williams is felt not only in West Virginia, but across the nation,” said 1st District Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. “Woody was the best of us. A hero at Iwo Jima, he was an icon to veterans across the nation and became their voice on matters before Congress and in state houses. Our nation mourns his passing.”

Justice was joined in his praise of Williams by other members of the state Board of Public Works through social media.

“We lost an American hero today,” said Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt, a retired Marine Corps officer. “I am grateful to have called you a friend and worked with you on so many projects. You will not be forgotten. To my fellow Marine, may you rest in peace Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams.”

“God Bless the soul of Woody Williams, an exemplary West Virginian and an amazing and courageous American,” said Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. “God broke the mold when he created Woody! Thank you from every one of us.”

“A true American hero,” said State Auditor J.B. McCuskey. “Thank you for your heroic service to our nation, being an ambassador for our state, and your decades of dedication to our Veterans. Your legacy has made us proud, inspired others and will never be forgotten.”

“Rest in peace, Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams,” said State Treasurer Riley Moore. “Woody’s heroic legacy will live on in the hearts of all West Virginians. Let’s honor his bravery and patriotism and pray for his family and loved ones.”

“Today, West Virginia and the United States mourn the loss of a true American hero,” said Secretary of State Mac Warner. “In battle and in life, Woody Williams was a role model for all of us. For many, he inspired us to military service.”

Legislative leaders in both parties also expressed their appreciation for the life and services of Williams, who often visited the Legislature to advocate for causes.

“Woody Williams represented the best of West Virginia, a love for his family, a sense of service to his country, and a dedication to honoring our veterans,” said Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley. “While we’ve now lost the last surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient, his legacy of service above self and love of his country will continue to live through the Gold Star Families memorials his foundation helped build in all 50 states.”

“One of the greatest West Virginians to ever live and a hero to all,” said House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio. “His service never stopped nor will his legacy. Thank you, Woody.”

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