A Memory Of Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, 1998 – thirty years after I came home from Vietnam – I had the honor of being asked to speak to a few hundred Americans assembled on a parade ground. I was asked about what it was like “ … in those days …” As I look back at that speech I remain proud that I told them:

You see … in those days … it seems we did most everything in the rain or the snow or in the dust.

We marched straight as a pine on tired feet and spent many evenings playing cards, homesick and bored near tears. We eagerly went to mail call hoping for a letter or a gift pack from home.

In those days …

We were gung ho, we were strong, we were invincible … and believed that, if we could just live through the day we might make it back to build a better world … We counted our remaining service days on calendars … wrote home so that our mothers would not worry … and tried not to think about sudden death in a lonely forgotten corner of the world …

In those days…

We fought at Bunker Hill … we were Johnny Reb and Billy Yank at Antietam and Gettysburg … and we were Doughboys against the Kaiser … and we were Leathernecks and Flyboys and Tankers in Europe, Africa and the Pacific Theater … and we were Grunts in the mud and snow of Korea … and we left our innocence in the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam … and we gritted our teeth and breathed the dust and weathered the fires of Desert Storm.

In those days…

We saw our strong, young friends cut down in their prime, scarcely knowing them before they were gone.

And so, we come to Memorial Day … 1998…

Would those who died in service be proud of us who have carried this cherished idea, this flag, this America forward? Those who perished as Yanks and Grunts and Sailors and Flyboys and Tankers and Nurses and Cooks and Supply Clerks – who were taken from us and whose memory we honor today – would they look upon what has been achieved with pride?

Would they be proud of us – the beneficiaries of their sacrifice – for creating this now … where we currently have no foreign enemy on our shores, where we have an economy that is strong … where people are free to believe what they choose … where we honor and revere our dead for the legacy they demand of us?

I would like to think they would smile upon us now for they would see that – upon their sacrifices – we have built an America where we can agree to disagree… where we can weather Constitutional crises and emerge all the stronger… where we choose our leaders in open elections … an America whose abundance is shared with the world…where we have maintained freedoms which are merely dreams in other nations.

Yet, they might note that our work is not yet done… perhaps, were we to have the privilege of asking them…

They might tell us to focus our energies on making certain no child goes hungry … that no child goes uneducated … that no child goes without proper medical care.

They might tell us to redouble our efforts toward working together on all things rather than fueling community conflict….and to be strong enough to ignore those who would intentionally divide our community…

They might tell us that we have too long allowed spousal abuse to go unpunished… that we have too long allowed stalkers to ply their particular brand of terrorism among the innocent …

They might tell us to rid our hearts and communities of racial discrimination – because death did not choose our fallen comrades along racial lines – yet, we, the living often persist in doing so…

They might tell us to teach our children and grandchildren not to harm – or worse – kill one another…

They might tell us to expect adults to stop infecting children with their own fears and blind hatreds – particularly those fears about and hatreds for the very system of government which make life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness cherished rights.

They might tell us to make certain that our community is responsibly taking care of pets, ensuring that we eradicate animal neglect and abuse.

They might tell us that we need to get more young people to participate in clubs such as Lions, Soroptimists, Elks, Eagles, Masons, Odd Fellows and others – in order to carry on the good work those organizations do on behalf of the community.

They might tell us to be ever on guard against those among us who – hiding like cowards behind the freedoms earned by generations of gallant dead – choose to subvert, terrorize and attempt to destroy our very way of life.

They might tell us to rid this country of drug and alcohol abuse – replacing them with education and self-esteem. they might point out that, as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz learned, the ability to do so has been there all along…

They might tell us to focus on balancing between economic growth, protecting the environment and respecting the rights and values of cultural groups…

They might tell us to take in stride the hateful criticisms of people who detest the military and the very idea of the military – remembering that it is because of the sacrifices and service of generations of dedicated military that such folks may freely criticize.

Yes, they might tell us that the work is not yet done.

Would they be proud?

Those who died at Yorktown, at Chickamauga, in the Argonne Forest, on Leyte, at Pearl Harbor, in Europe, Africa, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, Somalia and a thousand other places – would they be proud of this place now called America? I would like to think so, but, the work is not yet done.

While the Veterans we see here today wear no uniforms – no rank – no badges – we carry in our hearts the honest desires of soldiers – and we are all soldiers – standing up for decency, honesty, pride in our communities, loving and helping our neighbors – and protecting the rights that have been earned with the sweat, tears, blood and grief of generations of people who came before us.

While we wear no uniforms – no spit-shined shoes – no crisply starched fatigues – we carry in our hearts the principles of soldiers – fighting against negativism, terrorism, hatred, injustice, discrimination, and oppression.

Our departed comrades-in-arms did not die merely for a hill, or a bunker, or a skirmish, or a firefight or a dogfight. Our honored dead made their ultimate contributions in defense of values – of the right to live in peace and the Golden Rule and loving and being loved by our families.

They gave their lives so that we might have the honor of living decently and with joy … they have given us a dear and lasting gift … a legacy which we must be fully and deeply committed to build upon.

To those who came before us, who passed in service to this, the greatest nation ever on this planet, we salute your sacrifice and honor your memory. We accept your gift with all its daily challenges and think of you fondly and with our most heartfelt respect.

And, to those gathered here today who currently serve – please accept the sincere admiration and gratitude of your community. We encourage you to meet billet boredom with inspiration and camaraderie … to meet the necessary discipline of your MOS with pride and distinction … and meet the possibility of conflict with the strength, courage and “can do” that is the legacy of every Soldier, Marine, Sailor, Airman, Coast Guardsman and Merchant Marine who has come before you.

Let us all stand straight, tall and with honor.… And let us join one another in continuing to build an America of which all previous generations might be proud and where future generations may fully enjoy the freedoms bought at such a dear price by the noble men and women to whom we pay tribute today.

Thank you.

Article written by

Stephen L. Kent, founder and president of The Results Group, Ltd., has more than 30 years of leadership, training and facilitation experience. As a leadership & training consultant, he specializes in helping organizations design and implement programs to improve personal, leadership and organizational effectiveness, strategic planning, issues management and community engagement. Steve is a dynamic speaker who is known for his straight talk that gets right to the heart of key issues. He and his family reside in Oro Valley, Arizona.

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