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Memorial Day - 2013
The following is the text of a speech I delivered on Saturday, May 25 at the Memorial Day observance at Greenwood Cemetery in Canon City, Colorado.
President John F. Kennedy said, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”
Today we remember and honor the American Soldier – the ordinary men and women, who died while in military service.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said in an 1884 Memorial Day address, “Memorial Day celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith.”
But with changing times, Memorial Day is more celebrated as a holiday than the solemn occasion it was meant to be. For many Americans, Memorial Day is the end of school, the beginning of summer, trips to the beach, river or lake and, of course, the backyard barbeque. Americans like Memorial Day; we all covet time off to relax and be with friends and family.
But here and now, it seem that some of the conflicts in our history - the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I…they seem like ancient history. For the current generation we may as well be regaling them with tales of Julius Caesar in Gaul, or Leonides victory at Thermopylae – they seem almost as distant.
And even with veterans still very much among us from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, they are becoming obscured to this generation through the haze of time.
But, certainly, that’s what this is day is all about. This day was meant to be about something much more than backyard barbecues, beaches, and vacation.
This day, Memorial Day, is a day unlike any other. Since 1868 we have come together in our communities, towns and villages, to place flowers and flags on the graves of those who have given their last full measure of devotion to our country. We have come here to remember and honor those who have done their duty, as God allowed them to see that duty.
Let me cite a few facts – a few, brutal, ominous facts.
Those Americans who died in all these wars—and more could be mentioned—did their duty. We know who they are. We visit the cemeteries and note the dates of their shortened lives on the headstones. We know their loved ones, their wives and mothers, and their children, and the friends who shall always miss them.
They have left a legacy of freedom. They taught their children and their children’s children the value of sacrifice, and work, and virtue, the necessary conditions of freedom. They taught us the love of country.
These soldiers have become our teachers. The words and deeds of their lives, remind us of human excellence, of the things for which we stand, of the courage that is necessary to maintain those things. They taught us what it means to be a citizen of the last best hope of earth: America.
We should look at their courage, their resoluteness, and their actions. They didn’t expect much from life. In fact, they thought themselves rather ordinary, but ended up being great because much was expected of them. And they did not disappoint.
One thing is certain, as the historian Victor Davis Hanson has said, “Thank God we don’t have to fight anyone like ourselves!!!”
And, after the well-deserved and hard-fought victories in these struggles down through our history—like the generous people that we are—we helped rebuild their countries; we wrote constitutions for the defeated, and insisted that their regimes turn toward democracy and rights. Instead of enslaving the defeated, we set them free. At their finest hour Americans treat their vanquished with magnanimity. For this Americans will be remembered – should be remembered.
But how easy it seems for us to forget. We must remind ourselves of these sacrifices - for it the very silence of those who now rest that calls us to remembrance.
It is that thought that reminds me of a poem that was borne out of the First World War: In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
We must remember them. We must honor them.
How is it possible to honor such men, both the dead and living?
Perhaps we should make certain that the stories are told and retold to our children and grandchildren.
Perhaps we should try to imitate the purposes and lives of these heroes, both those who came home and those who will never come home.
Perhaps we should just sincerely, solemnly, and silently give thanks to God at every waking moment for these heroes who made sure that this island of liberty would continue.
Perhaps we should just say this, along with Abraham Lincoln: “Gold is good in its place; but living, brave, patriotic men, are better than gold.”
Perhaps we should remember that these heroes are more than just statistics to be rehearsed. They are more than just numbers to be put to memory.
They were sons and daughters. They were fathers and mothers. They were husbands and wives. They had loved ones who, once sending them off to war, knew that there was a possibility that they may never again embrace them…and all too often – didn’t.
They had names. Many were from Colorado. Some who gave their all just in this last year. Names like Jordan Bear of Denver, Darrel Enos of Colorado Springs, Ryan Hall of Colorado Springs, and Kedith Jacobs of Denver.
Names like Christopher Birdwell of Windsor, who through his heroic actions on August 27, 2012, sacrificed his own life, saved several of his fellow soldiers, and was posthumously promoted to SSG and awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Names like SSG Brian Cowdrey of the 3rd Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Brian served his country through one tour in Iraq and was in his third tour in Afghanistan on a Medevac chopper. He was one of those heroes who flew into the firefight, into the heart of combat to save those who had fallen in the field. His crew was part of the All-American DUSTOFF MEDEVAC Company.
On October 13, 2011, while doing what he loved, serving his country, Brian was killed in action in Afghanistan. He was received at Peterson Field in a ceremony befitting a fallen hero and then laid to rest in La Junta.
You see, Brian was my friend, as well as my elementary, junior high, and high school and college classmate. You might say I knew him.
If you’ve ever seen the Band of Brothers series you might remember a short portion of the interview with Dick Winters where he responded to a question about being a hero by saying, “No, but I served with a company of heroes”. Even though I didn’t realize it as we grew up together, Brian was a true hero and he served with heroes.
Each and every day and each and every night, we rest comfortably within the warm blanket of freedom that people like Chris Birdwell and Brian Cowdrey provide.
A freedom that is very costly. A freedom that isn’t free.
On that thought, and I close with this, is a poem titled Freedom Is Not Free by Kelly Strong.
I watched the flag pass by one day.
A young Marine saluted it,
I looked at him in uniform
I thought how many men like him
How many died on foreign soil?
How many pilots' planes shot down?
How many foxholes were soldiers' graves?
I heard the sound of TAPS one night,
I listened to the bugler play
I wondered just how many times
When a flag had draped a coffin
I thought of all the children,
Of fathers, sons and husbands
I thought about a graveyard
Of unmarked graves in Arlington.
Thank you. God bless you. And may God bless America this Memorial Day.
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