A few years ago my brother and I toured Sagamore Hill on Long Island, the home of Theodore Roosevelt. We then stopped at the nearby Young’s Memorial Cemetery to pay our respects at the grave of the 26th president. A brass plaque at the foot of the grave reads, “Theodore Roosevelt, Medal of Honor, Lieut. Col. U.S. Army, Spanish American War.” While the presidential seal is affixed to the headstone, Roosevelt’s military service is identified more conspicuously than his time in government. And that is just the way he would have wanted it.
After leaving the White House Theodore Roosevelt declined the traditional honor of being referred to as “Mr. President.” He preferred to be addressed as “Colonel.” When the Spanish American War broke out in 1898, Roosevelt resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and lobbied the Secretary of War for an Army commission. He would join the fight in Cuba. “I would not have allowed even a death to stand in my way… it was my one chance to do something for my country and for my family and my one chance to cut my little notch on the stick that stands as a measuring rod in every family.”
The “notch” Roosevelt carved was substantial. He recruited a volunteer cavalry regiment that became known as the Rough Riders. The opportunity to be a part of the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment struck a chord with young men across the nation. Twenty-three thousand applicants sought to fill the one thousand openings. The men selected came from all walks of life – from Wild West cowboys to Ivy League polo players. Yet they were all hard-charging fighters whom Roosevelt described as, “children of the dragon’s blood.”
The Rough Rider’s charge up the San Juan Heights is the stuff of legend. The regiment was ordered to support the regulars in their assault. Roosevelt, tall in the saddle on his horse Little Texas, urged his men upward through a hail of bullets. When his glasses were shot off, he snatched a pair from inside his hat where he had sewn additional spectacles, pressed them to the bridge of his nose, and continued his charge. The cavalry, forced to fight on foot as infantry, outdistanced the regulars, seized the heights and achieved a momentous victory. Roosevelt would later refer to it as “the greatest day in my life,” and his “crowded hour.”
Although the Rough Riders suffered more casualties than any other American unit in Cuba, bullets and mortar shells were not the most deadly. Malaria and Yellow Fever took a far heavier toll. Eighty percent of the men were infected. Following the Spanish surrender, to save his men from dying from illness, Roosevelt sent a forceful letter to the commanding general insisting that his men be allowed to depart Cuba. The letter brought the desired result and doubtless saved many lives. It also cost Roosevelt the Congressional Medal of Honor for which he had been recommended. His letter was leaked to the press and embarrassed Army commanders. “The hero of San Juan” as the press named him would not receive his nation’s highest honor…
…At least not in his lifetime.
In 2001, over a century after his exploits in Cuba, and more than eighty years following his death, the Defense Department recognized its error, and awarded Theodore Roosevelt the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously.
The apostle Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy in his final epistle, “There is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day.” (II Tim. 4:8) Paul suffered greatly for the gospel, and eventually died a martyr’s death. But he was assured that there was a reward awaiting him after his death, when he stood before the Lord.
The experience of Theodore Roosevelt illustrates what the apostle Paul knew to be true – that earthly recognition is often denied for the very reasons it ought to be granted. And that the genuinely highest honors are not bestowed in this lifetime.