It was more than 80 years ago when a young man, still a student at East High School in Des Moines and a member of the Class of 1940, enlisted in the Iowa National Guard. It was the beginning of a 26-year military career that would span three wars and include the participation in some of the most consequential battles in modern history.
His name was Lester M. Cook. He was a member of our nation’s Greatest Generation, but he was also a member of an exclusive rank of extraordinary individuals who played an indispensable role in America’s victory in World War II: the “Original Darby Rangers” of the 1st Ranger Battalion.
The World War II Army Rangers were an elite corps of soldiers. Launched in 1942, the 1st Ranger Battalion traces its lineage directly to the modern day Ranger Regiment, one of the most renowned fighting forces in the world. When it was first put together during the war, the Army Rangers were made up of 500 of the finest soldiers out of a group of more than 1,500 who volunteered to join. Sgt. Cook was among those who volunteered and was handpicked to be trained with the rest of the select group at Achnacarry, Scotland.
These heroes, like Sgt. Cook, engaged in some of the most ferocious and consequential fighting of the entire war, including the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, the campaign in North Africa, and the Allies’ advance through Italy. It is long past time that they receive the honor and recognition that they unquestionably deserve.
That’s why in 2019 I joined my fellow veteran, Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, to see to it that these elite soldiers of World War II are properly honored. Senator Duckworth and I introduced legislation to award them the Congressional Gold Medal, one of our nation’s highest distinctions. Since then, Senator Duckworth and I, along with fellow veterans and members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa and Congressman Jason Crow of Colorado, have pushed relentlessly to get the bill signed into law.
After a years-long, bipartisan effort, and with support from networks of veterans and their families from across the nation, in the last few weeks we pushed our legislation through Congress and to the president’s desk. And just a few days ago, our bill was signed into law. At long last, these heroes—the World War II Army Rangers—will receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
I was so pleased to have the distinct opportunity to meet Sgt. Cook before he passed away in 2020. One of the great honors of my career as a U.S. Senator and a combat veteran was to be invited to join Sgt. Cook’s family and friends for his memorial service. My staff and I were thrilled that Sgt. Cook was able to participate in a project we had undertaken to document the testimony of many of our nation’s war heroes. Sgt. Cook discussed what the Congressional Gold Medal means to him and to his fellow Army Rangers.
I regret that Sgt. Cook wasn’t able to see this legislation get signed into law, as he had long wished for, but I hope this Congressional Gold Medal—a small token of our nation’s gratitude—will stand to honor his legacy, sacrifice, and selfless service, and that of his fellow Army Rangers, for generations to come.
To Sgt. Cook and to every single one of the men of the World War II Army Rangers—America’s heroes—we say ‘thank you.’ May our nation forever remember and honor your sacrifice.