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Fifteen years ago, Sen. Robert C. Byrd changed my life and launched me on a path of public service that continues to this day.
When he nominated me as a candidate to the United States Military Academy at West Point, he sent me on my journey into manhood, into the profession of arms, and to understanding how a true patriot behaves. Though he never served in the military, there is no doubt that he understood and lived the depths of service to our great state and nation.
Bob Byrd was a man of the people of our state, a true son of Appalachia.
He understood intimately many of the lessons I learned firsthand in the Army: that we fight to preserve the opportunities of tomorrow, and not to justify the mistakes in our past. His life was a monument built on this foundation, that to be American means to look to the future, to build a better tomorrow for our children, and to seek out and embrace new opportunities. In the last years of his life, he continued with this spirit in an unashamed manner, struggling with and leading the fight against the entrenched interests that have kept our state and our people in the mires of poverty for decades.
We are at a moment of crisis in America, and especially here in West Virginia. As the senator recognized, there is little we as a state can do to preserve the coal economy of the past. We have stretched safety policies and environmental standards to the point where this one-time engine of opportunity is now not only a drain on our own future, but actually running a loss for the vast majority of our state. With rogue companies running roughshod over the people and our birthright of the Appalachians, Sen. Byrd saw that we must demand more for the future.
As the world moves beyond the technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, some politicians in West Virginia are even thinking about using a severance tax on clean and endless sources of energy such as wind! This is merely to make a long-shot technology such as carbon capture and storage somewhat more economical (though still highly uncertain and unproven).
While CCS deserves funding, it should not come at the expense of other promising, cleaner energy sources of tomorrow. Last December, the senator left us with no doubt about where he stands on these issues in stating, "Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose."
Perhaps most telling, Sen. Byrd's leadership in voting against the recent Murkowski amendment stood in direct contrast to the backward and belittling views of our other sitting senator, a co-sponsor of the measure.
We continue to send men and women to fight our battles overseas while we fund our enemies every day at the gas tank, we send generations of men down into the mines at the mercy of absentee owners who care merely about the next quarter's profits, and we continue to destroy God's creation via mountaintop removal with the equivalent of an atomic bomb every single week. There is simply no way this can last another generation.
We are presented with an opportunity, West Virginia. Sen. Byrd sent me to West Point to learn about leadership, about service, about what it means to be an American in the modern, complex world. And I know I am not the only one whom he sent on this journey. The time to stand up and demand better from our leaders is now. As Gov. Manchin weighs his options for appointing Byrd's replacement, and ponders his own next moves, we must remind him of his duty to the future of our state, and not in merely preserving a status quo that has let so many of us down. Who will be the next Robert C. Byrd?
Gensler, of Charleston, is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, an Iraq War veteran and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. He is currently in graduate school and working for the Department of Energy in Washington.