09 November 2013

Veterans Day speech (2007)

This is a speech I gave on Veterans Day in 2007.

Thank you very much.

I'd like to begin today's remarks with a true story that you may have heard about an Army captain from Fort Belvoir, Virginia. 

The captain was approaching the post medical facility when she noticed a veteran walking toward her. The old soldier, stooped over and walking slowly, appeared to be about 80 years old. The captain barely gave the veteran a second glance because coming up immediately behind him was a full colonel. When it was time to render her salute to the colonel, the old veteran was only a few paces from the captain. 

"Good morning, Sir," the captain said, saluting sharply. The veteran immediately came to life, totally transformed by the captain's greeting. Thinking the salute was intended for him, the veteran straightened up, returned her salute and exclaimed with vigor, "Good morning, Captain."

Meanwhile, the colonel was in the process of returning the salute when he realized what was going on. The colonel stopped in mid-salute, remained silent, exchanged glances with the captain, and continued on his way unobserved by the veteran.

This story illustrates the importance of Veterans Day, when the nation pauses to salute all those who have served and those who continue to serve in uniform. It honors those who have served on active, Reserve or Guard duty, and those who served during times of peace as well as war. This day honors those who served two years, or an entire career.

World War I – known at the time as “The Great War” - officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France. However, fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.”

In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words:
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…
Veterans Day is the day set aside to thank and honor ALL those who served honorably in the military - in wartime or peacetime.  In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank LIVING veterans for their service, to acknowledge that their contributions to our national security are appreciated, and to underscore the fact that all those who served - not only those who died - have sacrificed and done their duty.  As we see in the story of the old veteran, even a small amount of recognition can go a long way.

Today we recognize some 25 million living veterans who have worn the uniform of the United States of America.  These men and women took an oath to defend our shores, an oath they upheld with honor.  

Two years ago, President Bush also recognized that
...on Veterans Day, we also remember the troops who left America's shores but did not live to be thanked as veterans. On this Veterans Day, we honor the courage of those who were lost in the current struggle. We think of the families who lost a loved one; we pray for their comfort. And we remember the men and women in uniform whose fate is still undetermined -- our prisoners of war and those missing in action. America must never forget their courage...
It is especially significant that we meet here when our nation is at war: daily, American lives are lost paying that ultimate sacrifice.  In Iraq, the insurgency continues to battle not only our troops, but the Iraqi people yearning for just a taste of the freedom we enjoy.  In Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden continues to evade our troops, and American troops there are paying a price as well.

It is right that we as a nation should continue to ask questions.  Is this war worth the price?  For that answer, we must travel back to the earliest days of American independence.  First, we should ask, “What did we seek?”

The answer, of course, was independence from the tyranny of George III.  Our history classes taught us the causes:  oppressive taxation, taxation without representation, We all remember the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and Paul Revere’s ride.

But in a larger sense, the Revolutionary War was a battle of ideas.  A major disagreement over the most basic philosophies of government.  This disagreement was ultimately codified in our most cherished historical document, the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
This truly was a revolutionary idea.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness:  “freedom”.  And of course, it was not free.  Some 25,000 men lost their lives for the cause of freedom.  The cost of freedom is the blood of patriots.  It was Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration, who said, “the tree of liberty must constantly be refreshed by the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  Those 25,000 men made the ultimate sacrifice, demonstrating the fundamental price of freedom.

Some 87 years later, we learned that lesson again in our nation’s most trying experience, the Civil War.  Fathers, sons, brothers, families, paid that sacrifice.  Lincoln’s closing words at Gettysburg say it much clearer than I could impart to you:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- 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.

Over 15 million American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines served on the battlefields of Europe during two World Wars and in the Pacific during World War II.

Later, millions more served in Korea and Vietnam.  Our remembrance of those who served there, particularly in Vietnam, should not be tainted by the memories of protest but by the honor of their service.

September 11, 2001 brought the war to our doorstep.  Now, the fight was not on a distant continent, but our own backyard.  It is wise to remember Sir Winston Churchill’s words of sixty plus years ago, when we knew the price of freedom was not cheap: “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter.”

This was not rocket science; Churchill simply repeated what we have learned over two centuries-plus of history.

We’ve already demonstrated that freedom is the underlying cause of our crusade.  So we return to our fundamental question: “Is this war worth the price?”  In a larger sense, “Should we continue to spread our freedom across the globe?”

James Kushiner answers:
…what sort of freedom is being spread? Americans have championed the freedom of a people to determine their own course of both national and local community life, rather than have it dictated to them either by a tyrant or by a small ruling elite that suppresses the aspirations of the citizenry. The tyrant is the privileged man of power, while true patriots are the community of citizens seeking freedom within the context of guaranteed God-given rights natural to man: among them, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is the freedom for which the Greatest Generation fought and died.
And I would submit to you that all of our generations have proudly worn the uniform for that same freedom. President Kennedy challenged our nation: “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.”

Our generations of servicemen and servicewomen answered that call, protecting our shores with pride and serving the nation honorably.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I challenge you today to make a difference in a veteran’s life today just as the salute did to the old veteran in the story I opened my remarks with.  Whether the veteran is a parent or grandparent, brother or sister, friend or neighbor, or even a complete stranger, two simple words will mean more to them than anything else you can say: those two words, of course, are THANK YOU.

Let me close with the words Ronald Reagan used when he left office in January 1989, when he spoke about America as a “shining city upon a hill”:
The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free. I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.
So I ask what Reagan did back then:  “And how stands the city on this Veterans Day?”

“After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

Thank you very much, may God bless our soldiers currently in the fight around the globe, our living veterans, our fallen brethren, and the United States of America.
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