I spoke today at the 33rd Annual City View Memorial Day Service in Salem, OR. Below is my speech.
My Uncle Bob was a gunner on a B-17 during WWII. On his ninth mission his plane was shot down over the North Sea. As he parachuted toward the water, German gunners on a sub fired up at him, hitting him several times. He spent the next two and a half years as a POW at Luft Stalag 17. He was enlisted and he was a Jew. The Germans routinely beat him, including using a bull whip on him as the scars on his back attested.
Bob survived the war and went on to live a very productive life, even though he walked with a severe limp and his body was wracked with pain. And Bob would tell you he was the lucky one. Seven members of his 10-member crew didn’t make it out of that plane and Bob always considered them the heroes.
Today we gather to remember the heroes.
I will tell you that I feel that everyone who raised their right hand and swore to defend their country against all enemies foreign or domestic is heroic for doing what many others did not do. But as soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and Merchant Marines we know that the true honor goes to those who didn’t make it back home.
WWI – 116,516
WWII – 405,399
Korea – 36,516
Vietnam – 58,220
Gulf War – 294
GWOT – 6,648 and this number continues to grow.
Since the Revolutionary War, 1,321,753 Americans have died for our country in 74 different conflicts; 6,005 were Oregonians.
So what does all this mean? Do we just gather one day a year, hold ceremonies, and then go shopping and have BBQ?
Friends, I’m afraid we’re losing our way as a nation when it comes to honoring our war dead and understanding the price we must pay – in blood – to sustain our great nation in this ever changing and dangerous world.
I am not going to argue today whether every conflict into which our nation has sent young men and women has been just. That is for history to decide. But I will argue that no matter when our nation called, men and women in uniform stepped up and sacrificed for the greater good that is America.
Pearl Harbor, Omaha Beach, The Ardennes, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, the Philippines, Batan, Kasserine Pass, Messina, Schweinfurt, Dresden, Inchon, Chosin Reservoir, Pusan, Ia Drang Valley, Saigon, Hue, Cu Chi, Ka Sahn, Hamburger Hill, Libya, Panama, Grenada, Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Mogadishu, Bagdad, Fallujah, Mosul, Kandahar, Kabul, Helmand Province.
These and other places are etched into the psyche of America’s history, defining generations of men and women, yet the farther away we move from this history the greater the number of people who know nothing about these places and why they were important then and should still be important Today.
Thomas Jefferson once said that, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” This is why we as a nation can never forget those who spilled their blood and gave their lives for liberty – the liberty of our nation, the liberty of our people, the liberty of other nations, and the liberty of the man and woman fighting on their left and right.
So how then do we honor our heroes? Certainly a day like today – a day when the entire nation stops to pay homage to its war dead is appropriate. But I tend to agree with Patton who said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” Without such men and women – those willing to serve and place themselves in harm’s way – there would be no liberty only tyrants.
My challenge to you today would be this: Let us honor our war dead by first thanking God that such men and women lived. And second, living our lives in a way that is worthy of their sacrifice.
We have a code that we will never leave anyone behind. As veterans we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and now it’s our turn to ensure nobody gets left behind.
We have WWII veterans who never sought their veteran benefits who now in their old age need our support and help. We have Korean War veterans who to this day feel forgotten – we need to reach out to them and tell them we care and that they are not forgotten – not by us! We have Vietnam veterans who for the first time in 40 years are being welcomed home, yet many still struggle and need us to walk beside them. We have combat veterans from half a dozen battles that are never recognized because their wars were not really called wars, yet they are hurting and need us. We have Gulf War veterans suffering from unknown illnesses who could really use a helping hand from the Vietnam generation who know exactly how those Gulf War vets feel due to their own battles with Agent Orange. And we have our returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who need us older vets to wrap our arms around them to ensure they are taken care of in a way perhaps we were not.
You may have not realized it at the time, but when you took your oath you were making a life-time commitment to serve. While your service to your country may have ended decades ago, your service to each other continues. Make it your mission to take care of each other. Sacrifice for each other the way those who gave their lives sacrificed for us. And care for those Gold Star Wives, Mothers, and Families whose personal sacrifice is beyond measure.
Veterans, there was a time when we were all young, hard as steel, and as gung ho as they come. Recapture that spirit and live your life for those whose lives were cut down in their prime. Live your life with meaning so that every day people will know you served with heroes and you honor their memories with the life you have due to their sacrifices.
Today is Memorial Day, the day we honor our war dead. Stand tall veterans as you represent our fallen brothers and sisters, honoring their memories through your lives.