(May 26, 1997)
By Deborah Y. Parker
Public Affairs Office, 279th Base Support Battalion, Unit 27535, Bamberg, Germany
"Darkness enveloped the whole American armada. Not a pinpoint of light showed from those hundreds of ships as they surged on through the night toward their destiny, carrying across the ageless and indifferent sea tens of thousands of young men, fighting for ... for, well, at least each other." Journalist Ernie Pyle wrote these words in 1944 to describe the beginning of the Normandy invasion. For Americans, these words paint a picture of the fear and confusion surrounding soldiers on the eve of battle, because history tells us of the days and months following the invasion. Yet, they also impart the sense of determination those young men must have felt. Through his words, Ernie Pyle puts us in touch with our patriotism, our pride and our understanding of who we are and how we came to be a nation.
Even more, these words impel us to remember the cost of bringing America this far and also force us to admit the price is not yet paid in full. This is what Memorial Day symbolizes -- a time Americans take a clear look at both our past and our future. One day each year, when we acknowledge the debt we owe to those men and women who -- because they so cherished peace -- chose to live as warriors.
Could anything be more contradictory than the lives of our soldiers? They love America, so they spend long years in foreign lands far from her shores. They revere freedom, so they sacrifice their own that we may be free. They defend our right to live as individuals, yet yield their individuality in that cause. Perhaps most paradoxically of all, they value life, and so bravely ready themselves to die in the service of our country.
For more than 220 years our military has provided a bastion against our enemies. In that time, our world has changed and our armed forces have changed with it, but the valor, dignity, and courage of the men and women in uniform remain the same. From Valley Forge to Desert Storm, from San Juan Hill to Operation Joint Guard, the fighting spirit of the American soldier permeates the history of our nation.
The founders of the United States understood that the military would be the rampart from which America would guard its freedom. George Washington once stated, "By keeping up in Peace a well-regulated and disciplined militia, we shall take the fairest and best method to preserve for a long time to come the happiness, dignity and Independence of our country." The prophecy of those words has been fulfilled time and again.
The cost of that vision has been tremendous, for the periods of peace our country has enjoyed are few. The longest time of complete tranquillity for our armed forces was the 23 years between World Wars One and Two. Since the Revolutionary War, more than 42 million men and women have served in America's military. More than 600,000 of those dauntless, selfless warriors died in combat.
But why are we so seemingly willing to fight and, if need be, to die? The answer to that question is as simple -- and yet as complex -- as the soul of America itself. We fight because we believe. Not that war is good, but that sometimes it is necessary. Our soldiers fight and die not for the glory of war, but for the prize of freedom. The words of the philosopher John Stuart Mill say it best: "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight; nothing he cares more about than his own personal safety; is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free...."
And, the heart of America is freedom, for ourselves and all nations willing to fight for it. Yes, the price is high, but freedom is a wealth no debt can encumber.
So, we choose to remember the past because the payment for forgetfulness is dear -- sacrifice, service, duty ... and many times, injury and death paid by gallant, heroic men and women. Only fools would elect to forget so expensive a lesson.
But, what of the soldiers whose life blood has bought the liberty of our nation? They are all different, yet share a sameness that is deeper than the uniform they wear. They are black, white, man, woman, Hispanic, Indian, Asian, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Muslim, and a hundred other variations and combinations. What is most important -- regardless of race, creed, color or gender -- they are American.
When the men of the Army's 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments served at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, during the Indian Wars, they were given the most difficult duties, under the most rigorous conditions. Their bravery was legendary among the Indian nations. Their fabled unit became one of the historic cornerstones of the armed forces. Today, we read of the valor these soldiers displayed, the challenges they overcame, and only secondarily do we notice the root of their regimental nickname -- the Buffalo Soldiers -- a fanciful name given them by an enemy fascinated with their dark skin and hair.
During World War Two, when the nurses on Corregidor stayed to tend the wounded, they knew that facing them was inevitable hardship and possible death. They would be captured, imprisoned, starved, conceivably tortured or killed. They never faltered. No one, from General MacArthur down, questioned their right to stay behind. They were soldiers; that was the mission. At the end of the war, they were freed from the prison camps and, indeed, many of them had died. They were warriors and heroes. They were also women.
On May 2, 1968, an Army 12-man special forces team was inserted into the jungle west of Loc Ninh, Vietnam. They met heavy resistance from the enemy. Three times helicopters attempted to land and bring the team out, but each time they were driven off. A staff sergeant monitoring the operation from the unit's base station volunteered to return with another helicopter and try again. He realized all the team members were wounded or dead, so he jumped from the aircraft to assist the injured. Then the pilot was killed and his helicopter crashed. The staff sergeant called for help. When the next aircraft arrived, the soldier carried the wounded and dead to the helicopter. He was wounded himself over seven times, but he saved the lives of eight men that day. His name was Roy Benavidez.
An Army helicopter crashed in the middle of a dense maze of shacks and shanties in Mogadishu, Somalia. A growing number of enemy troops were closing in on the site where four critically wounded soldiers were trapped in the wreckage. Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randall Shughart volunteered to go to the aid of their fallen comrades. Subjected to intense fire from automatic weapons and rocket- propelled grenades, they fought their way through the narrow streets to the crash site. They stayed and fought until their ammunition was exhausted. After Sergeant Shughart was killed, Master Sergeant Gordon took a rifle from the debris, handed it to an injured pilot, wished him "Good luck," and continued to fight until he, himself, was fatally wounded.
These courageous men and women, each so different in heritage and background, shared the common bonds of the armed forces -- duty and sacrifice. All of them reached a moment in their lives when race and religion, creed and color made no difference. What remained was the essence of America -- the fighting spirit of a proud, valorous people. They are soldiers who paid the price for freedom.
As we remember these brave warriors and their comrades in arms on this Memorial Day, we must look to the future as well as the past. In today's world, freedom comes cloaked in uncertainty. America still relies on her sons and daughters to defend her liberty. The cost of independence remains high, but we are willing to pay it. We do not pay it gladly, but we pay it with deep reverence and thanks to those who have sacrificed their lives for America. We know that in the years to come, more brave souls will sacrifice their lives for America. We include them in our thoughts and prayers today.
This speech is a command-information product of Army Public Affairs.
About the Special Events Speech Series
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