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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With an old soldier of 107 looking on, the Pentagon on Thursday unveiled portraits of World War One veterans and the photographer behind them voiced hope they would remind officials their decisions affect real lives.
The large, striking photographs of nine veterans, taken when they were aged 105 or older, will hang on the walls of the Pentagon as reminders of a war Defense Secretary Robert Gates said was not well understood or remembered in America.
"There is no big memorial on the National Mall. Hollywood has not turned its gaze in this direction for decades," Gates said at a ceremony to present the photographs.
"Yet few events have so markedly shaped the world we live in as the epic blood struggle we know as the Great War," he said. "During 18 months of fighting, we suffered more deaths -- over 116,000 -- than in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined," Gates said.
Sharing the stage with Gates was 107-year-old Frank Buckles of Charles Town, West Virginia, one of only two surviving Americans who served in World War One, the 1914-1918 conflict the United States entered in 1917.
The other survivor, John Babcock of Spokane, Washington, served in Canada's armed forces in World War One. He became an American citizen in 1946.
The other seven veterans featured in the exhibition by Michigan photographer David DeJonge have died since their portraits were taken.
"History is fading away before the very eyes of America," DeJonge said. "These icons of America have and are still being forgotten."
DeJonge said he hoped donating the pictures to the Pentagon would help officials "recognize that the decisions they make here each day affect people for 90, 100, 150 years on out."
"They're very busy in what they do here and they do an incredible job, but to link the history ... to what they're doing here in the Pentagon, I think it's the perfect fit," he said.
Buckles served as an ambulance driver in England and France during World War One after setting sail for Scotland in December 1917 aboard the Carpathia, a ship that had helped rescue passengers from the wreck of the Titanic in 1912.
Buckles, who also visited President George W. Bush at the White House on Thursday, showed a sharp wit when a reporter mentioned he had lied about his age to join the Army, claiming to be 21 when he was only 16.
"I didn't lie. Nobody calls me a liar," he chided her with a smile before allowing, "I may have increased my age."
Editing by Peter Cooney