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Memorial Day address to the American Legion Remembrance ceremony

Today, our nation honors the sacrifices of the military men and women who gave their lives for our country.  Our tradition of Memorial Day arose shortly after the Civil War, so I think it’s appropriate to borrow some phrases from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: Lincoln challenged us to honor those who gave “the last full measure of devotion” by resolving that they “shall not have died in vain.”  He challenged the living to rededicate themselves to the cause for which honorable men and women gave their lives – that our nation, conceived in liberty, should have a new birth.  Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  So, today we honor those patriots who gave the last full measure of devotion in order to refresh the tree of liberty.

When I was born in 1975, 80% of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives had served in the military.  Currently, that number is less than 20%.  As recently as 1990, veterans made up 35% of men and 17% of the entire population of the United States.  Today, less than 1% of the American population serves in the military and just 7% are veterans.  That’s a far cry from the World War II generation when nearly all able-bodied men served in the armed forces.  I suppose this is my long way of saying that it used to be nearly impossible not to have a close family member in the military service.  Now, many people don’t even know a member of the military.  I think this is extremely unfortunate. 

One of the great tragedies of life is that much of the wisdom and experience of our elders will inevitably be lost when they pass on.  We are experiencing an acute tragedy right now as the World War II generation is passing away at an accelerating pace, and with them go the stories that they were too humble or too traumatized to share.  Korean War and Vietnam era veterans will follow in due course, and we will lose their stories too.  With so few people that have a relative or close friend with military experience, how will future generations hear the personal eye-witness stories that explain what it means to give “the last full measure of devotion?”  What it really means to sacrifice for your country?  I urge those with military experience to share their stories of sacrifice, both big and small before it’s too late.

Nowadays we applaud politicians and activists who tell us to sacrifice our comfort (but rarely theirs) for their favorite cause.  We marvel when a Hollywood actor or actress risks sacrificing their future career rather than violate principles they apparently gained after becoming a multi-millionaire.  We cry over the “sacrifice” of a comic book super hero, and rejoice when they are brought back to life in a movie sequel.  Well today, I’d like to share some small stories of true sacrifices that have touched my life.  And since so few people today have a strong connection to the military, I won’t focus exclusively on the ones who gave their last full measure of devotion.

My uncle, Thomas Allen Warren, answered the call to serve with the Army in Vietnam.  For two long months in 1968, my grandparents, Ray and Ellie, worried and prayed for him.  For two long months, their prayers were answered.  Then, during his third month in country, they received the news that no parent ever wants to hear.  I know my uncle only from a photo on the wall of small farmhouse near Erie, Pennsylvania. From that photograph, Tom watched over my brother and me while we played with new toys every Christmas.  Tom watched over us as we ate breakfast before going out to clean horse stalls during the summer, or as we prepared for a canoe trip on the river.  Tom was even watching as I held my grandfather’s hand while he breathed his last breath.  I didn’t give a lot of thought to Tom’s picture, other than to feel a little safer with the young man in the Army uniform watching over me.  I never even asked why there was a medal next to his picture in the frame.  It was many years later that I realized my brother’s middle name was chosen to honor Tom.  A few years back, I received orders to Afghanistan.  It was then that I realized the significance of Tom’s picture.  My father sat down with me and told me about his parents’ fear when he joined the Navy during Vietnam, so soon after the death of his older brother.  He told me about his fear now that his own son was going to a war zone.  The tears in my dad’s eyes as he told me not to be a hero made me realize that Tom had not been watching over his childhood home as a guardian.  Tom’s memory haunted that farmhouse.  Proud, loving parents and a boy who idolized his older brother sacrificed for their country every bit as much as the Private First Class who gave his last full measure of devotion.

LT Terri Fussner was a cheerleader at the Naval Academy, and when I met her at my first fleet helicopter squadron, I was immediately struck by her energy and positive attitude.  She was a heck of a pilot too, and took me under her wing right away.  We shared an office for several months before she departed on her second deployment.  LT Wayne Roberts had an infectious smile.  There was no mistaking that he was a man who loved his family, his country, flying, and playing dominoes – in that order.  I regret that I never knew the third crewmember of their helicopter, AW2 Jason Lawson.  I’m told he was an amazing guy.  When their helicopter, Cutlass 470, lifted off from the USS Haylor on March 13, 2002, they expected a routine flight off the coast of Greece.  The Navy never gave us a satisfactory explanation of why they crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, but their loss left a ship and an entire helicopter squadron stunned and three families heartbroken.  Terri’s husband struggled to pick up the pieces, Jason’s parents are probably haunted every bit as much as my grandparents were by the loss of their son, and Wayne’s children had to grow up without their father.  Seventeen years later, Wayne’s son still wears his father’s flight jacket to important events.  The crew of Cutlass 470 gave their last full measure of devotion just six months after the attacks of 9/11.

Recently, I took a group of cadets from the Navy JROTC to visit our nation’s capital.  We saw the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner.  We visited Arlington National Cemetery and witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  If you’ve never seen that for yourself, I encourage you to visit and pay tribute to those who gave their last full measure of devotion, but whose names are lost to history.  We visited monuments to the Civil War, World War II, and Korea.  As I always do, I visited the Vietnam Memorial and placed my hand on my uncle’s name.  I thought I would have to explain to the cadets what it means for me to touch that name, but I couldn’t find the words to describe my feelings.  Then I saw a cadet place her hand on a different name, Robert Small.  His sacrifice was never to know his granddaughter, Laura, whose hand was now resting on his name.

If you’ve never been in a military family, it’s hard to understand the sacrifices that we are honoring today.  It’s hard to know the pain of watching your loved ones grow smaller and smaller as a truck, train, boat, or plane takes you away for months or years at a time.  It’s impossible to describe the dread a mother, father, wife, or husband feels every time the phone or doorbell rings during a deployment.  There are conversations that never happen.  My wife stayed silent during 20 years of worry every time I climbed into a helicopter.  I stayed silent about 20 years of aircraft fires, malfunctions, failures, and close calls.  December 25th is just a day on a calendar when you can’t watch your children open presents.  Only military children understand the emptiness of a stadium, auditorium, or ceremony that has an unoccupied seat where their deployed parent should be.  These are not one-time events, but years and even lifetimes of missed moments like first steps, first words, graduations, birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.  So, if you don’t have a close connection to a military member, I can understand if you might wonder why men and women are willing to make these sacrifices.  I’ll end with a short story that might help you to understand.

In the movie, American Sniper, a story is told about Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs.  This is a story I heard many times before the movie was produced.  In short, Sheepdogs protect the Sheep from the Wolves.  However, most Sheep have never seen a Wolf, and many even start to question the Wolf’s existence.  The Sheep get annoyed by the Sheepdog constantly pacing around the flock and forcing back any Sheep that strays.  Sometimes the Sheepdogs are even a bit rude or rough, nipping at the heels of the Sheep to guide them back to the flock.  The Sheep are tired of the Sheepdog constantly warning them of a threat that may never occur.  For his part, the Sheepdog is insistent on always being ready in case the Wolf comes around.  Now here’s where the story usually ends by asking, which one are you, the Sheep, the Sheepdog, or the Wolf?  I always thought something was missing though.  Why does the Sheepdog do what he does?  The Sheepdog doesn’t protect the flock to gain the respect and gratitude of the Sheep, though he certainly deserves it.  The Sheepdog doesn’t stand ready against threats because he hates the Wolf, though he certainly does.  No, the Sheepdog stands between the Sheep and the Wolf for one reason and one reason alone…he loves the Sheep.  The Sheepdog knows the Wolf is real and is waiting for the right moment to attack.  The Sheepdog loves the Sheep so much that he is willing to give his last full measure of devotion so they don’t have to.  Today we honor those Sheepdogs.

Today, we remember the military men and women who loved this country so much, they gave their last full measure of devotion for you, for me, and for all of us.  May their sacrifice never be forgotten.