U.S. House and Senate support renaming VA Center after West Oak Lane war hero [updated]

UPDATE: U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah’s bill passed the House of Representatives on Monday.

The Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center could soon be renamed in honor of the city’s lone Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and the entire Pennsylvania congressional delegation sent a letter urging the House Veterans Affairs Committee to vote before Jan. 3 on pending legislation to rename the Woodland Avenue facility in honor of Michael Crescenz, a West Oak Lane war hero who died while saving fellow soldier’s lives.

The latest push comes as a like-minded bill introduced by U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey received full senate support on Wednesday.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Said Crecenz’s brother Joe upon hearing about the vote, “Holy crap! It’s very surreal for me; I really don’t know what to say. But, this means so much to the Vietnam vets who’ve pushed for this.”

What’s happened?

The unanimous Senate passage brings the effort one step closer to fruition. The renaming mission still needs support from the U.S. House and, if given, a signature from President Barack Obama.

For his part, Toomey was happy it passed this initial hurdle.

“The name of Philly’s own Michael Crescenz deserves to be above the door at the Woodlawn Avenue Medical Center,” Toomey said of the facility located at 3900 Woodland Ave. “It is great news that the Senate agrees with me that Corporal Crescenz should be remembered in this way.

“I realize this is a small gesture on our part, given the nature of his great actions. We do this with profound respect and deepest gratitude for his sacrifice. May the renaming of this building serve as an ever-present reminder of the sacrifices of all of Pennsylvania’s Vietnam veterans.”

The deadline for the current Congress’ ability to get the measure to the White House is quickly approaching. So, the bipartisan House group sent a letter (PDF) to Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who serves as committee chairman seeking an expedited process.

“Renaming the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center in honor of Corporal Michael J. Crescenz would pay tribute to the sacrifice and service of this American hero,” the letter signed by 18 U.S. Representatives reads. “Moreover, it pays tribute to the veterans of our Commonwealth and the veterans of this great nation.”

Beltway insiders said Thursday that committee members expect to see the bill gain full House passage by year’s end.

Ongoing, but stalled, efforts

These latest developments come nearly two years after Fattah and Toomey initially introduced renaming-focused legislation, and three months after City Councilman David Oh’s resolution reminding the D.C. delegation of the issue unanimously passed Council.

The embattled Fattah noted that passage of his bill “recognizing one of Philadelphia’s most distinguished military servicemen, is long overdue. … As we near the end of the 113th Congress, I urge my colleagues to bring either the Senate version or the House version of the bill to a vote.”

The 113th Congress’ tenure officially ends the morning of Jan. 3, 2015.

Oh, a Republican at-large councilman, said before Thursday’s meeting that he was hopeful the bipartisan issue has reached its tipping point toward acceptance.

“The clock’s ticking and we’re running out of time, but this bipartisan issue is supported, hopefully, by everybody in Pennsylvania, and for good reason,” Oh said at City Hall. “Whether it’s World War II or those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, everyone is supportive of renaming the VA Center after Michael Crescenz.”

Heroic warzone actions

On Nov. 20, 1968, Crescenz found himself in the middle of an Army unit moving though the jungles of Quang Nam Province, when — all of a sudden — all hell broke loose.

His unit was ambushed by a “large, well-entrenched force of the North Vietnamese Army whose initial burst of fire pinned down the lead squad and killed the two point men,” reads an Arlington National Cemetery account of Crescenz’s last day.

“Immediately, Cpl. Crescenz left the relative safety of his own position, seized a nearby machine gun and, with complete disregard for his safety, charged 100 meters up a slope toward the enemy’s bunkers which he effectively silenced, killing the two occupants of each,” it states.

“Undaunted by the withering machine gun fire around him, Cpl. Crescenz courageously moved forward toward a third bunker which he also succeeded in silencing, killing two more of the enemy and momentarily clearing the route of advance for his comrades,” it continued.

Amid those heroic actions, the 19-year-old was fatally shot in the head.

Crescenz was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon in April 1970.

“I was with Michael when he gave his life for his comrades, for me and for his country,” said Army veteran Bill Stafford. “I am grateful that he will not be forgotten. Michael will always have a place in my mind and my heart. God bless America.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal