A long time has passed since I stepped inside an American Legion, but not nearly as long as the event that bring us together today.
That event that took place Seven score and 14 years ago when the United States tested and proved its resolve to defend an idea—“that all men are created equal.” Neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother in a battle like no other. Over 620,000 Soldiers died to preserve the way of life we fought so hard to establish just 87 years earlier. On that solemn day in Gettysburg, 1863 President Lincoln honored the dead who, as he stated, “gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” Ladies and gentlemen, it is my privilege to share with you this day of memorial to reflect, remember, honor all those service members who gave their last full measure of devotion, who made it possible for me to be here with you today, and to be part of a community committed to preserving what we started over 241 years ago—not all that long ago when you think about it.
As someone who has had the responsibility of leading America’s men and women in combat, nothing weighs heavier on a leader’s mind than the desire to bring all our troops home—and the gut-wrenching sorrow that ensues when we don’t. While I was fortunate enough to bring all my Soldiers home, the idea of “my Soldier” expanded with every deployment, every time we lined up along the side of the road, saluting as the flag-covered caskets went by in procession. Why was I weeping? I didn’t even know these guys. My tough south of Chicago-bred shell was hard—but not that hard. Or as the Salts from my prior Navy days might say, crusty but not that crusty. And nothing can buckle my knees like a First Sergeant sounding off a final roll call with the first, middle and last name of a fallen Soldier, followed by the bugle call of Taps. For a piece that is played in less 59 seconds, it’s gotta be the longest song in history…and don’t even get me started on the lyrics. So yes—over the years, every Soldier became in a sense, my Soldier.
For a girl who practically grew up in the American Legion (Post 1156 in Calumet Park, IL—I don’t think it exists anymore) and with over 32 years of military service, I honestly never gave much thought to Memorial Day—where we honor fallen service members; or Veterans Day, for that matter—where we honor service members still living. How is that possible and, oh, by the way—where the heck did the time go?! “Long time passing”, as Pete Seeger wrote in his song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” (And all these years I thought Peter, Paul and Mary wrote that.)
Even with time spent in the Legion’s junior auxiliary, I didn’t really know why we pinned a paper poppy to our clothes. I mean, I knew it was for Memorial Day but—why a poppy? I didn’t know it’s significance to WWI and Flanders Field in northern France—or anything about LTC John McCrae--the Canadian surgeon in the British Army who poured his grief into a poem called Flanders Field after burying his close friend…
…never gave much attention to wreath laying ceremonies portrayed in the news...
…never knew that the first major Memorial Day observance was held to honor the Civil War dead or that it was first called Decoration Day…
…gave little thought to the effort, commitment and time devoted to decorating thousands of graves with flags and flowers in cemeteries across the country. Magically, it seemed—one day a sea of miniature flags waved across cemetery grounds, and then just as magically they were gone.
Those opportunities for learning were lost swiveling on the stool, drinking Shirley Temples and eating red-shelled pistachios while my father tended bar at the Post. Or perhaps in my youth I wasn’t listening and through age I have forgotten. Thankfully, it’s never too late to learn.
So, when then, did Memorial Day take on meaning for me? For you? No doubt we each own have our own story—just like we do when we remember where exactly we were and what precisely we were doing when the twin towers fell.
For myself, if you don’t mind me sharing, I think Memorial Day started to take meaning when I first heard somebody say, “Thank you for your service.” That was weird. Just doing my job. Embarrassed at the attention, I didn’t know what to say. Some of you may recall days when the complete opposite sentiment was fileted your way. Or when we were directed to ensure we traveled in civilian attire, and made no mention of our military affiliation. We have lived through more than one period of fluxing sentiments—some of them sadly hostile.
So before the day is done, let me ask:
What comes to mind when you wake up with your head on your own pillow and there’s nobody firing in your direction?
What comes to mind when you realize you have in-door plumbing, water temperature you can control, food prepared the way you want, able to eat it when you choose—if you think about it at all.
What comes to mind for me is that I’m home (wherever that is), instead of deployed, and that I’ve got nothing to complain about. I didn’t always have that perspective—that appreciation—but after four deployments, I sure do now.
Perspective—so fleeting when bombarded with Memorial Day sales ads instead of mortars.
Perspective—so far away when planning a picnic instead of a path across the desert, out of a jungle, in darkness, under fire in the sweltering heat or freezing cold…crossing the berm from Kuwait into Iraq on Easter Sunday…missing holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, your baby’s first step.
Perspective—so in your face when you wake up every day without your spouse, son, daughter, father, mother, brother, sister…with not just the loss of what was, but the loss of what could have been and will now never be.
When we embrace that in-your face perspective, what do we feel? Anger? Frustration? Confusion? Doubt? Fear? Guilt? Gratitude? Some combination?
While there’s nothing like being deployed for a year at a time to make you realize that the world goes on without you, it is perspective that propels me to choose gratitude.
We can be grateful for every day we have the privilege to serve, the privilege to acknowledge all those who have gone before us—who gave us the chance to choose; the privilege to support this idea—this great experiment we call democracy, and to defend it against all those who would attempt to push an alternate idea upon us.
To all of you here today who carried the torch of freedom in any capacity—your individual experiences may be unimaginable to many…what we can do, and it makes so much more sense to me now, is thank you for enabling the rest of us to serve. The challenges you and our predecessors faced were different in many ways than the challenges of today’s military. What we share, I think, is knowing that serving was the right thing to do—this profession of arms, joining a purpose bigger than ourselves. These things are what I think we all have in common.
As we take this day to remember the fallen—to stand in solidarity with those who are left among us, and honor all those who gave their lives for our freedom—it’s not too late to re-commit ourselves to reminding each other of Memorial Day’s true meaning.
The competition is fierce! We’ve got the official first day of summer and all its B-B-Qs.
For those who don’t yet have a grill—this is your day to get one on sale!
And lest your children forget to remind you—isn’t this is the day the pool re-opens?
But hey, within each of those events is an opportunity to remind those around us that this is a day to remember those Americans who died in service to our nation—those whose sacrifice made it possible for the pool to re-open…and so much more.
Ever since eight members of the Lexington militia lost their lives in the first battle of the American Revolution, nearly 1.2 million service members—Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guard—have made the ultimate sacrifice. It is our duty to ensure they are not lost to history.
As we preserve the memory of all who have given their lives for our freedoms, please pause to remember that more than 186,000 Soldiers currently are deployed to 140 different countries. Each one of them is as willing as their forebears to fight for and sacrifice to ensure the freedoms of this great nation and its people. While personally I am partial to sentiment from the movie Patton, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”; the truth is whenever freedom has been threatened, gallant men and women of America have risked—and too often given—their lives. To them and their families, remain grateful.
Reflecting on the lyrics and melody of Taps—you know how it goes—that first verse anyway, “Day is done, gone the sun, from the lake, from the hills, from the sky; all is well, safely rest, God is nigh.”, we can also consider the words of President Lincoln on that solemn day in Gettysburg—if you don’t mind hearing them again…“that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Our torch is to take up President Lincoln’s resolve, and through our own actions and gratitude, keep faith with all those who have fought our wars, by keeping their memory alive, today and every day. Thank you.