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Final WWI veteran seeks memorial for comrades

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  • NEW: Bill would renovate, expand memorial
  • Last surviving U.S. veteran of World War I pushes for upgrade
  • WWI memorial in nation's capital currently is a local one
  • Monument is difficult to find, "looks like it's been neglected"
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From Paul Courson
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- At 107, Frank Buckles must know there is not much time for him to honor the memory of his comrades who served the United States during the first World War. He's the last surviving U.S. veteran of what then was called the Great War.

Buckles, during World War I, drove ambulances and later transported prisoners of war.

Frank Buckles is 107 years old and the last surviving U.S. veteran of World War I.

The old soldier came to Washington on Tuesday hoping to turn a run-down local memorial on the National Mall into something in keeping with other, permanent monuments to Americans who've sacrificed in other wars.

He's getting help from a Texas congressman who said he found the condition of the site deplorable. At a news conference with Buckles on Tuesday, Rep. Ted Poe said he has introduced the "Frank Buckles World War I Act" to renovate and expand the memorial within the next few years.

Poe, a Republican, said his bill would "give this memorial energy, and will be incorporated in a grander, better memorial for all that served in World War I."

The price of the initial renovations would be around $1 million, Poe said, and the site eventually would be upgraded to a national memorial, though design details haven't been determined.

The memorial is currently not national, having been built primarily to honor about 500 veterans from the District of Columbia.

Buckles, who left the Army as a corporal, first visited the gazebo-style structure in March. He told reporters Tuesday that he does not think it's too late to acknowledge the sacrifice of all Americans from that war.

"I think they should be honored by their representatives," Buckles said from his wheelchair. "I am a representative of World War I, simply through longevity."

Also pushing the overhaul and upgrade are the D.C. Preservation League and the World War I Memorial Foundation.

The site of the current monument -- in dense woods not far from the fresh and elaborate World War II memorial -- is hard to find, even in the dead of winter, when Buckles last visited.

"We just saw it through the trees," tourist Regina Duffy said in March. "I was surprised when we got over here that it was a World War I memorial, because I thought it would be more prominent."

With summer foliage fully in bloom, the city's monument is almost completely obscured.

Zeke Musa of Florida said it "looks like it's been neglected."

"If you just look at the walks here, all the stones are broken and everything. These guys served their country, you know? It's a shame," said Musa, a Vietnam veteran.

According to an autobiography released this year by the Pentagon, Buckles was eager to join the war. Although only 16 in the summer of 1917, he lied about his age to get into the armed services.

He said his recruiter told him "the Ambulance Service was the quickest way to get to France," so he took training in trench casualty retrieval.

Buckles was an officer's escort in France before joining a detail transporting German prisoners of war.

He now lives on his family's cattle farm near Charles Town, West Virginia.

All About World War I

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