Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day Address – Cazenovia, NY
28 May 2007 – LtCol Kurt Wheeler, USMCR

Why are we here today? We are here to remember and to honor those who have given their lives in defense of our country and its principles. We are here to observe Memorial Day. Recall that a memorial is designed to preserve the memory of something precious. That will be our goal today.

The heritage of this holiday goes back explicitly to the years immediately following the Civil War, when a day was set a side to decorate, or to lay flowers, on the graves of those who had fallen in that conflict. It was known for a half century as “Decoration Day” until the Great War, when it was expanded to remember the sacrifices of the fallen from all wars, a tradition we continue today, 90 years hence.

The duty of remembering heroes is always a solemn responsibility, but even more so when your nation is at war. Even more so when each day the names of additional young Americans are added to the long of those we are here to honor.

The specific notion of an American Memorial Day goes back only a century and a half, but the concept of eulogizing and honoring fallen heroes is, of course, much older. It is a practice that can be traced back through the millennia, with one of the best known historical examples being among the Greeks. Scholars today still read Pericles’ Funeral Oration. What is striking about Pericles’ address is that his focus was not only on the fallen heroes, but also the worthiness of the civilization they defended.

I believe there is a lesson to be learned from our ancient Greek ancestors, so I’ll ask you today to reflect on both the fallen and on what they fought for. We are here to honor all members of that long and illustrious line of American heroes, but let me tell you a little about the men and women at the tip of the spear today.

First let me repeat what I just said - they are men and women. The realities of counterinsurgency warfare have outpaced traditions, gender boundaries and policies. There are virtually no front-lines or rear areas in today’s war. Infantrymen and truck drivers, men and women are equally in harms’ way and are all paying a portion of our nation’s high toll in lives.

They’re volunteers. Every one of them has volunteered to serve our nation. The vast majority of them have enlisted since 9/11. They knew exactly what they were signing up for… and they still went.

They’re selfless – they ask only for the chance to make a difference. During my recent tour in Iraq, I had the privilege of interviewing over 425 Marines, soldiers and sailors serving there and the opportunity to interact meaningfully with many hundreds more. The ironic pattern I detected among this huge cross section of troops performing all manner of duties was that the harder the task they had been given, the higher their morale was.

They’re motivated. Last fall, the I Marine Expeditionary Force re-enlisted 161% of its annual goal during the first quarter of the year alone - in a war zone. That is not the response of a disheartened force. They believe in their mission and strive to achieve it each day with exceptional professionalism and skill.

They’re dedicated. I can’t begin to convey how hard these young people are working. A sixteen hour day was the average among all those I encountered there. Many worked longer. Twelve hours was the shortest of days.

They’re giving. My base of operations at Camp Fallujah was only a few hundred meters from the critical care surgical unit for that region. All too often the call would go out for the walking blood bank to provide direct transfusions to the wounded. On each occasion when the call matched my blood type I set aside my work and went straight there – but no matter how quick I was, I was never able to give – so many other troops rushed there to donate each time the call went out, that they began turning people away in minutes.

They’re merciful. You should be so proud of the compassion, the restraint, the judgment of these young people. Daily they are placed in precarious situations where they must make split second decisions with life and death consequences. They are living and working in the most dangerous places in Iraq, in and amongst the Iraqi people, because that is where this war, which is a struggle for the people themselves, will be won.

They are courageous… and humane… and disciplined… and I could go on praising the young people that are in harms way this morning longer than any of you would stand and listen. They are our greatest ambassadors and our greatest asset in the war on terror. They are worthy of your pride, your prayers, and of the honor we extend to those who have fallen today.

Senior commanders, wise men who have served our nation for decades, proudly compared this cohort of young people to “the greatest generation” of the World War II era. The Marines I interviewed would deflect this praise with great humility, but they would nonetheless be proud of the comparison. The impact of the legacy they have been given on their consciousness was exceptionally clear. So many of these young troops expressed a reverence for the service and the inspiration of their fathers, their uncles, their grandfathers. They are conspicuously aware of the tradition of service and sacrifice that has been bequeathed to them and they bear it proudly.

The other component of Pericles’ address was his expression of the virtues of Athens and why it was worth defending. Those we honor today clearly understood why America is worth defending… do we?

As I reflect on that question, I realize that my own service has not been a burden, but a blessing. I have been fortunate to see enough of the world to know how lucky I am to be here today. From Saudi Arabia where the concept of equal rights for women was an exotic, far-off notion, to Kuwait, which had been utterly conquered by a foreign power, its people crushed under the heel of a sadistic occupying army. From the Dominican Republic, where tragic poverty was around every corner and the police were so corrupt we were advised not to pull over for them under any circumstances, to the Republic of Georgia, where people could still recall having to worship in secret to avoid persecution by the Soviet government. Most recently in Iraq, where people lived in fear of dying for practicing the wrong type of Islam in the wrong place at the wrong time, where people lived in fear that they or their families might be struck down for daring to work toward something as audacious as running water or for trying to stop bombs from being buried on their street.

When was the last time one of us had to pause and calculate the risks before going to worship at the place of our choosing? Or to hesitate before falling asleep for fear that some political opinion we had expressed publicly might yield a nighttime visit from the government or a from faction we spoke against? When did we last worry about the safety of our children as we walked down the street or shopped or ate in a restaurant?

We have to be constantly aware, constantly vigilant about these blessings and so many more… Our liberties are so strong here, so deeply rooted, that they seem unassailable. The danger of complacency is great.

Every day I try to spend a few moments being consciously grateful for the blessing of being born in America. I do this consciously because I have been fortunate to see the alternatives. I’m lucky to have a job that affords me that brief opportunity each morning as I begin my day. For many, the Pledge of Allegiance seems to be a hollow ritual at best, or an unwanted interruption at worst. Certainly it rarely receives the contemplation it deserves.

Just for a moment, think about the words and what they mean: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, invisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

More than a million Americans have shown the highest form of allegiance. They have paid the price for our flag and all it represents. Remember how rare genuine republics are. Remember what a blessing it is to live in a nation that is not torn by divisions. Remember how many in the world don’t have the luxury of living freely under God and worshipping in any manner they choose. Remember that liberty is only a dream for many. Remember that justice is far from universal. The pledge can be a hollow ritual, or it can be a daily reminder or our blessings.

My challenge to each of you is to think about what it means the next time you say it, and each time you say it. Parents – talk to your children, explain it, discuss it. We are here today to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for its treasured principles. They’ve paid for this wonderful gift, they’ve placed it in our hands. All we have to do is value it. God Bless our fallen heroes today for all they have given. God Bless you for being here to remember them. God Bless America and help us to be worthy of the heritage we have been given.