Memorial Day Message 31MAY2010

I was asked to be the speaker for the Town of La Plata, Maryland’s Memorial Day remembrances in 2010. Here is the text of my speech and a link to the speech on YOUTUBE:

Part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vae5fmYXkno

Part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stBColhi5xE&feature=related

Mr. Mayor, distinguished veterans, fellow patriots – thank you for inviting me to speak today. It is a deep and humbling honor.

First, it is with much gratitude that I thank the citizens of La Plata for welcoming me and my family to this extraordinary town. In the year since we moved here, your cordiality, generosity, and hospitality have been overwhelming. La Plata is the sort of place that people long to call their home town – indeed, if I could have chosen a hometown it would be La Plata. I do not know for how long my family will live here, but each day we cherish the opportunity and look forward to our continued residence.

Today is a day of remembrance. A day of both glad and sad thoughts. We remember the fallen. Those sons and daughters, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, neighbors and friends that took up the cause of our nation and paid with their lives. This holiday is aimed specifically at those that fell in battle, but I like to remember all that have fought for us. We should use this day to celebrate the lives and sacrifices of these people.

From my own life I remember all the sea stories of my Dad and Father-in-law, both Cold War vets whose sacrifices secured the peace when nuclear annihilation threatened.

I remember Mr. Smiley, my next door neighbor growing up. Mr. Smiley was the hit of the neighborhood when he took all the neighborhood kids for rides in his WWII jeep on summer nights. Every Memorial Day he took his scout troop to place flags on the graves at the National Cemetery. I later learned that this gentle man was the sole survivor from his Landing Craft squadron at bloody Omaha Beach.

I remember my dear friend and fellow scoutmaster, Ike Ragland that landed on Utah beach and walked to Germany by the winter of ’45.

I remember my grandfather, who rode with General Black Jack Pershing against Pancho Villa and was a Doughboy in WWI. My wife’s grandfather, a young Marine officer that held the line at the Battle of Belleau Wood earning the Navy Cross in the fight that immortalized the Marine Corps.

I remember Mr. Mitchell from my church that flew a B-24 on the Ploesti Oil Fields raid in WWII.

I remember my cousin Sam Lumly, a merchant Sailor, who was torpedoed 3 times by Nazi U-boats in the North Atlantic.

I remember my ancestors that fought in the Civil War and Revolution.

These memories are mine, but I am sure they call to mind remembrances of your own friends and relatives.

This is the story of our nation – citizen soldiers that answer the call. Many never to return.

Sadness is a natural part of remembrance, but we should also cherish the joys of these lives. War is a very grim and brutal task, but I can tell you that soldiers spend much of their time smiling, joking, laughing, loving, and living their lives victoriously through adversity. War movies do a poor job of capturing the breadth of the human condition. They far too often focus on the extremes portraying either a sanitized or inhuman view of combat. The reality is that combat is truly a short term event that comes and goes with suddenness of a thunderstorm. When we remember those who are gone we should no more sum up their lives by the violence of their last minutes than we would if they were killed in an unexpected accident at home.

As an Iraq war veteran, my heart brims with emotion on special days such as these. Memories unbidden rise to the forefront of my awareness. I thought that sharing some these with you would provide you a glimpse into the lives of a modern soldier. It is for these I speak today. Our society sadly holds aloft celebrities and sport stars as heroes for veneration. I tell you history will judge us not by the works of these but instead the accomplishments of the warriors that fight this very hour for our sustained freedoms and the hope of bringing light to a benighted world.

Each day we mark the passing of veterans that fought the tyrannies of the 20th century. The fruit of prosperity was grown from the trees watered by the blood of their sacrifice. The fascist powers and communist threat were stopped by brave young men and women of previous generations. Their legacy to us consists of the simple imperative to continue the fight and stand for justice in a world besieged by individuals that will stop at nothing to tear down our civilization and replace it with a closed society ruled by terror in a religious police state. I have seen first hand the fruits of their labors and we must be committed to prevent its spread.

As a Navy Reserve officer, I was mobilized, trained as US Army Civil Affairs officer, and deployed with the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade to Baghdad, Iraq in 2006. On the streets of Baghdad I met the real heroes of America – the young, brave, highly professional men and women that have offered themselves, their honor, and indeed their very lives in service to you the American people.

To have walked those streets with these young heroes is an experience that deeply marked my soul. War brands men and women with its mark. There is no glory, but instead deep honor, deep commitment, and deep love shared by those that experience combat together. No other experience strips the emotions, lays raw the fears, and binds men together as strongly. So on a day such as this let me take you to Iraq, on a mission, and share with you a little my experience which so typifies the current missions carried out every day and to his very hour on the ground in distant lands.

Every night before a mission I stayed up late checking my gear, cleaning my rifle, reloading the magazines, and ensuring that all was ready for the morning. Well before dawn, I would shower and dress fully aware that this may be my last morning. In fact, we scrawled our names on all our gear, our uniforms, and boots against the grim reality that these may be all that was left to identify our remains. All told my gear weighed 95 pounds including boots, helmet, armor, and weapons. I welcomed this weight since I knew it was capable of stopping a snipers bullet or deadly shrapnel. For me most missions involved trudging to HQ, catching a ride to the helo pad at Camp Victory, and flying to a remote base with the other members of my Civil Affairs team. Our team waddled to the choppers, crawled inside, eventually strapped in and headed to our destination. These flights provided a period of introspection with the roar of the helo blades drowning out all but shouted conversation.

Usually, we were met by a convoy team of Civil Affairs, Scouts, Infantry, or MPs at the base. A typical mission was my 5 man Civil Affairs team spread across 3 or 4 Humvees crewed by our escorts. Invariably we were accompanied by Iraqi civilian interpreter. Many missions also included American civilian subject matter experts that visited factory sites with me. So our small convoy of 20 souls would soon mount up and head outside the wire. Two events always marked the start of the departure. As we approached the check-point leading into the dangerous no-mans land that was Baghdad, we would stop to load our weapons. The process of chambering rounds in my pistol and rifle always reminded me that we were playing for keeps. As we rolled out through the checkpoint, the truck commander would rely that our Hummer had 5 souls and was heading outside the wire. I invariably prayed a short prayer as we rolled through the gate which always ended irreverently; “Lord preserve us, and protect us, we’ve been drinking whiskey ‘fore breakfast….” (from the old Blue Grass tune).

Those first 300 yards were always tense. Whatever nagging concerns I had washed away, as we ventured into the great unknown. Within a few minutes the chatter and joking soon replaced concern. We usually made some grim jokes about the potential harm that may befall us but the fear could not keep its hold and the burden of weighing 300 pounds, wearing a helmet, long pants, long sleeves, and gloves and encased in armor during a Baghdad summer soon became the prime irritant. As we drove to the destination, the crackle of the radio, distant drone of small arms fire and occasional explosions punctuated the soundtrack of the mission. You grew so used to these sounds that only when they were close did you pay attention. On these long drives, I would chat with the Humvee’s crew. It was always fascinating to spend time with the young enlisted soldiers and junior officers. Their hopes, dreams, desires, were the stuff of our conversation. Mostly focused on what they would do when they returned to Germany, the US, or after their stint in the military. Spouses, sweethearts, and kids dominated the conversation. This is the smack talk that soldiers since Hannibal must share. Of course, also high on the list were foods we missed from home, the latest movie or video game we were missing, the latest high-speed piece of gear someone had secured, and the inevitable griping about heat, Internet access, food, and anything else a soldier can complain about. Soon enough we had made it to the point of interest and it was time to dismount. The relief in being able to get out of the truck was palpable. The greatest danger was to be ambushed by IED in route. In those days, the terrorists were able to regularly defeat the armor of the Humvees and the chances of survival were slim if your vehicle was successfully engaged. Once on the ground again, the tables were turned. The armor and firepower we carried made any encounter with the enemy very likely to be decided in our favor. Most missions usually then focused on a several hour tour of a destroyed Iraq industrial site, where as chief engineer, I tried to figure out how to get the place running again. Mission complete, we reversed the process with another convoy back to base and the celebratory bowl of ice cream commemorating another day ended with all limbs in tact.

Over the course of my deployment I visited dozens of remote bases and went on missions with hundreds of different soldiers. I can tell you that we were consistently confident in the success of our mission and believed that given the chance we would establish a lasting government of the people and by the people in Iraq. Despite the bloody summer and fall campaigns of 2006, we knew that the American soldier cannot be defeated by forces in the field – ever. We knew we would prevail as long as we receive the support of US citizens. History has demonstrated the truth of our beliefs and should reinforce our confidence to prevail in current operations. Do we expect set-backs, yes? No battle plan is perfect. Do we expect defeat? Never. Not if you believe in us, support us, and sacrifice with us.

My unit lost 9 soldiers and 2 interpreters. I remember each of these. In particular, I remember today the many missions I made with the interpreters. Like all Iraqis that worked with Americans, they went by aliases and were known to me as simple Snake and Eva. These Iraqi patriots believed in their nation, in their cause, and paid the ultimate sacrifice. Eva was 19 years old and beautiful. Her future was bright and cut short by a terrorist’s bomb. It is to her, my battle brothers, and all that ever chose to draw a sword in the cause of freedom that I read this poem from a distant and yet another unpopular war:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

So in parting, remember the fallen.

Cherish the good in their lives, the joy of their living, and legacy they leave us.

I thank you for your support on behalf of the United States Military and our families.

Good Bless America!

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