I spent part of Memorial Day at Valley Forge National Historical Park, a hike I’ll discuss elsewhere. But I also spent an hour and a mile hiking at a place I’d driven by for years without ever stopping. This is the story of an unknown gem in the shadow of the national park, why you should visit, and how it could be the most difficult hike you ever do.

Located two miles west of Washington’s Headquarters on Route 23 is the Freedoms Foundation. The small campus with the massive 100 foot flagpole is the headquarters of a Cold War organization founded by business leaders and General Eisenhower. The mission of the Freedoms Foundation is to promote “the ideals and principles of our free society and encourage all Americans to embrace both their rights and the responsibilities and contribute to the common good of society.” In other words, they teach and promote what my generation of students called civics. What the current generation calls the subject I don’t know, nor do I suspect they study it. Just that morning at Valley Forge I’d overheard a young woman surprised that Washington was the first President of the United States. Her boyfriend set her straight, which in turn set my blood pressure back to normal levels.

However, as interesting as the mission and campus of the Freedoms Foundation was to me, that wasn’t what I’d come for. Fifty-two of the eighty-five acres of the campus remains wooded. And in that woods is the Medal of Honor Grove. A winding series of paths take you to 54 memorials devoted to winners of the Medal of Honor – one for each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, military chaplains, and men who hadn’t achieved citizenship at the time they committed their act of heroism.

The Medal of Honor, popularly called the Congressional Medal of Honor even though its been presented by
Presidents from Lincoln to Obama, is the highest military commendation in the United States. It’s awarded to servicemen and women for valor above and beyond the call of duty. And its often presented posthumously, as valor demands sacrifice, and at times the ultimate sacrifice. As I wandered past the markers and monuments on this Memorial Day, I had a lump in my throat. Each name underlined the duality of war; its the most horrible of man’s creations, and yet it brings out the noblest elements in us. And every name tells a story. At the Pennsylvania monument I stopped to photograph one marker, just one at random.

Ross McGinnis was a young man born in Meadville and raised in Knox, both towns in western Pennsylvania. . The nineteen year old was a private in the US Army serving in Iraq. In 2006 a grenade was thrown into the vehicle he was riding in. With seconds to decide, he alerted the other soldiers so they could escape the vehicle and then threw himself on the explosive. McGinnis’ sacrifice saved the lives of the other soldiers. His parents were presented the Medal of Honor he earned by President Bush in 2008.

The Medal of Honor Grove is filled with such stories, some recent, many older. Here was a stillness in the air as I passed stories of lives cut short, parents outliving sons, children without fathers and spouses parted. My hike was on pavement, and little more than a mile. I didn’t need boots or poles. There was no exertion needed, and yet I’ve not found a hike that took more out of me than this one. I emerged from the wooded Grove into the sunlight and couldn’t look at the flag the same way I had when I walked in. And now a half day after my visit, I still can’t.