November 10, 2016

My 2016 Veterans Day Speech at Urbana High School

It’s an honor for me to speak about Veterans Day here where I taught English and journalism for 15 years and advised The Echo. Some of the best times of my life were in the classroom with students, discussing literature and the news of the day and how those stories and events apply to our own lives.
            I also want to thank Dr. Owen and the Urbana School District for having school today instead of giving everybody the day off and in providing the opportunity to remember the sacrifices of veterans who served down through the years for the freedom we enjoy in this country. It’s great for teachers and staff to be here, as well, to be reminded of what our country owes to its veterans.
            Look at these men (and women) here before me. They served when they were only slightly older than you are now and are here today to help us pay tribute and to help you understand why we’re here remembering Veterans Day. Would you veterans stand and let these students give you a hand for your service?
            How many of you students have parents, grandparents or relatives who served in the military? Please stand. That’s great. How about friends or neighbors? Please thank them for their service the next time you see them.
            Now to a bit of history—I’m a teacher. Remember?
            While we celebrate Veterans Day each year, and it’s a day off from school or work for many and the stores give sales, many people don’t know where the holiday came from. Oh, we know that Veterans Day is a day to honor Americans who have served and sacrificed for our country. But there’s more to it than that.
            World War I officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, but was signed seven months after the fighting had finally ended with an armistice, or a peace agreement, between the Allied Nations and Germany (with whom we were at war) on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, or November 11. The following year, Armistice Day was observed on that day “to remind nations to seek peaceful relations between one another, in hopes that we will never again be divided.”
            Well, so much for that. Great idea, but we’re still at war. World War II followed in a little more than 20 years and took 405,000 American lives before Germany and Japan surrendered and peace was restored after millions of other lives around the world were lost.
            World War II had hardly ended before the United States was back at it in Korea. That war ended in a truce with North Korea in 1953. Service organizations urged the 83rd Congress to reinstate or rename Armistice Day as Veterans Day to honor veterans of all conflicts, and President Eisenhower signed the legislation on June 1, 1954.
            And there have been changes so we could celebrate holidays on Mondays “to ensure three-day weekends for federal employees.” Veterans Day was relegated to the fourth Monday in October until objections reversed the decision for Veterans Day back to the original date so “Americans are able to focus on the importance of Veterans Day, which is to honor and celebrate veterans for their patriotism, passion for our country, and selflessness in serving for the common good.”
            No test on that, but I do hope you remember it. These things are aspects of our country that I tried to share with students here and at other schools where I taught for 25 years. Through those years, I brought veterans into my classes to speak about their service.
            Many times, those veterans were quite a bit older than the students, and it’s not always apparent how their experiences can apply to someone your age. But the fact of the matter is, as I said earlier, they were not much older than you are now when they served. I just returned from a funeral of an Iwo Jima veteran who turned 19 the day before the Marines landed on Iwo Jima. Many of those men were teenagers. In fact, Jack Lucas turned 17 six days before he landed on Iwo Jima and received the Medal of Honor for his actions in saving the lives of his buddies a few days later.
            From my own experience, I don’t remember when I didn’t look up to veterans and appreciate their service. In my eyes, they were like today’s action heroes. My earliest memory during World War II was of community dinners that were held in the upstairs of an old-time general store in a tiny village in eastern Illinois where I grew up. Soldiers would come home on leave, and the town would honor them for their service with a get-together. On the wall above the piano was a board with the names of all the men and women in the community who were serving. Four gold stars were beside the names of those who would never see their home again because they were killed in action.
            After the war, many of those who did come home and re-entered civilian life had a difficult time. One of my older cousins who was in his early 20s at the time, had landed on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944. After the war when he came home, I remember him playing cards with my parents and a couple of others—still wearing his Army fatigues and wearing a tankers’ cover on his head.
            He later went to work driving a livestock truck for my father. As I got older, I got to go with him sometimes. He was kind and gentle to me, but one day while we were at a neighbor’s farm loading calves during a thunderstorm, Bruce dove under the truck when a bolt of lightening accompanied a loud crack of thunder as if a mortar had exploded beside him. When I saw him do that, I was scared and didn’t know what to think.
            The neighbor—whose own son had served with Bruce—put his hand on my shoulder and simply said to me, “He was in the war, son.”
            Through the years, I continued riding or working with Bruce whenever possible. Throughout the area, we’d run into others who had served. I’d listen to them talk and occasionally hear a bit about their service. Not much, but I looked up to them and their service and told them I hoped some day to also be able to serve in a war as they had done—something they always said they hoped I would never have to do.
            Time ran out for Bruce when he was no longer able to handle the pain from his wounds and injuries. Sadly, on the anniversary of the D-Day invasion several years later, he took his own life. He once told me he wouldn’t take a million dollars for what he’d seen—but he wouldn’t take a millions dollars to do it again, either.
            The barber who cut my hair until I was out of high school had been in the Marine Corps and had landed on Iwo Jima—one of the toughest battles of the war—6,821 men were killed and another 19,000 wounded in the 36-day battle. He was among the wounded, and while he was being hoisted up the side of a hospital ship, he looked back toward the island and saw the flag flying on Mount Suribachi that’s now an iconic image in our nation’s history. He would tell that story to me with tears in his eyes.
            “Regardless of how long I live, I’ll never see anything so beautiful as Old Glory flying on that mountain,” he said. That was on only the fifth day of the battle, and the men on the island thought the battle was over.
            Others fought and served throughout the Pacific and Europe, “Flew The Hump,” over the Himalayas, taking food and supplies into China, or served in the States, as many civilians did, to support the war effort overseas. Some 16 million men and women served.
            When one of our neighbors who had joined the Marine Corps Air Wing before the war would meet one of my dad’s trucks I happened to be riding in and I would see him, I’d roll down the window and put my arm out and fly “a plane” at him. He’d fly his arm back at me. He’d been wounded in Hawaii as he was relieving the guard on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
            Then came the Korean War, the Cold War and Vietnam. I served during the later half of the second and the first part of the last and was with men who had served on Guadalcanal, on through the island-hopping campaign on the way to Japan and later in Korea. My most vivid memory is of one man, a corporal when I met him, a private when I last saw him serving time in the brig where I worked, who had been a gunnery sergeant. He’d landed with the infantry in four island campaigns, including bloody Tarawa, in World War II. He was still a gunnery sergeant during Korea, but his condition, which would have been identified as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) today, and alcohol took its toll. The last time I saw him back in the States he had the 1000-yard stare as he moved along, oblivious to everything around him.
            Since then, the country has eliminated the draft, the Iranian student revolution took over our embassy in Tehran and held our servicemen and citizens prisoner for 444 days, the Marine Barracks in Beirut was bombed, we’ve been attacked in our own country on 9-11, and we’ve been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for years, and we’re still fighting in the Middle East.
            And despite the lack of a draft, thousands of men and women have continued serving in the military by choice to keep us free and safe. Remembering and honoring those veterans who serve this country on our behalf is what today is all about. It’s the right thing for us to do for those who have been willing to put themselves in harm’s way to defend our country and our freedom.
            Thank you for your attention and thank you for remembering and honoring our veterans, today and every day.

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