Monday, September 19, 2005

My address to Gold Star families

I addressed Gold Star Mothers and their families, along with many Blue Star families, at a luncheon honoring fallen U. S. Marines on Sept. 17, 2005. The luncheon was sponsored by Tennessee Marine Families, a chartered not-for-profit organization of which my wife and I are members. Many readers will recognize that I modeled five paragraphs of this address on Pericles' oration at the first funeral of Athens' fallen of the Peloponnesian War in 431 bc. You will also see an echo of Shakespeare's "Henry V" in a closing paragraph.

There was a time in our country when families such as ours did not have to form organizations to offer one another moral and material support because a large percentage of Americans served in the military. Almost every extended family had a member in uniform at one time or another and endured separation or loss like we endure. Families of deployed service members were woven throughout the fabric of every town or city and so was a support structure for them. Today the privilege of service belongs to relatively few Americans, all volunteers - except us. Our sons or daughters - we can no longer call them children - volunteered for military service and then we discovered we had been drafted into another, softer service along with them. Softer service, yes, but not easy.

We have seen our sons or daughters or spouses volunteer for war, prepare for war, go to war. We have, most of us, given an embrace that we dared not think may be the last, taken photographs secretly fearing might be final, given and received tearful kisses hoping with all our hearts that they are promises, not really good-byes. And some us sadly have not welcomed our loved ones home and are living with the grief of fears that became fate.

Without reservations the fallen Marines we memorialize today believed in ideals that formed the very soil from which America grew. They held it self-evident that human beings are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. The fundamental premise on which America was founded was that human freedom is the will of God. Over 230 years of our history this idea has become so deeply rooted in the American psyche that even Americans who profess not to believe in God nonetheless say that freedom is the natural condition of human life. Historian and retired infantry officer T. R. Fehrenbach observed that the virtues required to protect a democracy are often at odds with the virtues of democracy. So while we cherish life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as just ends of democratic freedom, our Marines put their lives at risk, surrender many personal liberties and submit to rigorous discipline that is often most unhappy.

Why did they do this? The most reasonable thing to do when battle begins is to run away, not stay and fight. Were they truly willing to die for their country? I don't think so. There's an old story that goes back probably to the Civil War of the young soldier whose commander asked him, "Are you willing to die for your country?" The young man answered, "Certainly not. But I am ready to die, unwilling." The American armed forces really have no use for someone who is willing to die. We do not seek and soon weed out anyone seeking martyrdom in battle; this is a key distinction between us and our enemy. We do not send our soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines to die even though we know some inevitably will. Our country is instead ably protected by those who accept the risk rather than seek it. But why accept it?

What civilians rarely discern but what every veteran knows is that military service, especially in battle, is steeped with the convictions of deepest emotion. In battle there is fear and courage, anger and compassion. There is resignation and determination. There is hope and despair. The chief emotion of the battlefield is an unlikely one. It is love. Across the range of mental, physical and emotional states in the desolation of combat, love abides. Our Marines chose to serve for a variety of reasons, and love of country was a big one. But when enclosed by the mournful mutter of the battlefield, patrolling deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan, men at arms stay where flies the angry iron not for country or flag or other abstractions. In the final sense they fight for their friends. One Iraq veteran wrote,
[T]he first casualty of war is innocence. ... I've found the hard way that war is not glamorous. You quickly lose the idea of being a man fighting for his country when you have to carry your comrade who has been wounded in a gun fight. That nobility is lost quickly. ... It's not about fighting for the flag, it's about fighting for my life and fighting for my buddies' lives. These men I am lucky enough to serve with, I have become so attached to it's like they are my brothers.
A Marine major in Iraq wrote of a young corporal, a squad leader, who, during the invasion of Iraq was wounded by a grenade. This Marine refused evacuation and continued to guide his squad until he passed out from loss of blood.
Recovering at a US Army hospital in Germany, he convinced his doctors to release him, "borrowed" a camouflage uniform from a Navy corpsman, called his wife and told her that he wasn't coming home because his Marines were depending on him, and then talked his way onto an Air Force transport back to Iraq. He had the "golden ticket." He was headed home as a war hero with medals to prove it, but he just couldn't bear to let his Marines down, so he schemed and connived, as only a good Marine NCO can, and got himself back into the fight. There are those who will call that kind of response foolish. Then may God grant that I be such a fool. You may question the wisdom of that Marine, but he's the kind of man you want on your side when the chips are down.
Whether they served in peace or war, the Marines we memorialize today were not so impoverished of spirit that they were unable to surrender the pleasures of life. None of them excused themselves from hard service even though a softer lifestyle could have easily been gained. They deemed that their love of country and duty to freedom were of greater value and more important imperative, so they reckoned that if dangers must be faced, they would face them in the most desirable way, by placing their own mortal bodies "between their loved homes and the war's desolation."

They determined at the hazard of their lives to be honorable in their young adulthood, to make sure of their duty, and to leave everything else for later, if later ever came. They gave over to hope their chance of lifelong happiness and the uncertainty of final success, and in mortal danger they relied only upon themselves, their buddies and the Corps itself. They chose to risk death young as free men rather than live long as conquered ones. And when fearful lethality loomed they resolved to resist and suffer, rather than flee to save their lives; they ran away not from danger but from dishonor. On the battlefield they stood steadfast, and in an instant, at the height of their resolve, they passed away from this life but not from our lives or the destinies of generations yet to come.

Such was the end of these men's lives. We need not desire to have a more heroic spirit than they, although we do pray that others and their families suffer no such fate. The value of their spirit is poorly expressed in words. Anyone can speak to you about the advantages of such devotion, but you know about that already. Instead I hope that we can fix our eyes upon the greatness of our country and of these men's love of it and one another, and reflect that this country was established and has been preserved by men and women who knew their duty and determined to do it even at cost of life.

We should make them our examples. Their courage is our freedom and our freedom is our happiness. We whose loved ones still serve must not weigh too hard on the perils of war. We accept their love of country as our assurance and their service as our blessing. So it is comfort rather than pity I have to offer you, the families of the fallen. There are numberless chances to which lives of men and women are subjected: none of us here is promised even to see our own homes again today or ever.

These Marines' service ended in their honorable deaths and your honorable sorrow. Their passing is truly sad, for which you rightly mourn - but their deaths were not tragic, for tragedy is found in futility and selfishness, never by attaining the great honor of selfless service for freedom's sake. I know how hard it is to hear this, for the good fortune of others will too often remind you of the gladness which once lightened your hearts. There is a portal you have passed through that we frankly hope never to cross ourselves. So we honor your grieving and will never forget your sons and husbands.

In gratitude we should offer them praise that does not grow old, and acknowledge they occupy the noblest of all tombs. I speak not of that in which their remains are laid, but of that in which their glory survives and is proclaimed whenever people protect their freedom or are liberated from tyranny. For the whole world is the memorial of these Americans; they signed the earth itself with their blood and their honor. Not only are they commemorated here in their own country, but in Iraq and Afghanistan there are countless, unwritten memorials of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of tens of millions of peoples newly freed from murderous oppression.

Because of these men's sacrifice we go safely to our homes. Henceforth we should stand in humility when their names are read. Their comrades in arms who see old age will recall them fondly and show their medals and say, "These ribbons I earned beside true heroes." We will forget many things in years to come but we shall remember these great men and what feats they did one day. These dates shall never go by but that in them our fallen shall be remembered. They were a few, a band of brothers; and may we gratefully call them who shed their blood for us our brothers. And people in our country safe in their beds should think themselves accursed they knew them not, and hold their courage cheap when we speak of those who fought and died for freedom's cause.

The prophet Micah wrote that the time will come when God will judge between all the peoples and will settle disputes between strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. All people will be at peace, and no one will make them afraid (Micah 4:3-4).

Let us pray that day comes quickly. Until then may the Lord watch over those who serve today, to make them instruments of justice, enablers of peace, and finally to see them safely home. To our Gold Star families, may God bless you and keep you and comfort you, from this day until the ending of the world.

In honor of and gratitude for the service and sacrifice of these Marines:
LCpl. Benjamin Gearheart - Franklin, Tennessee
Cpl. Patrick Nixon - Gallatin, Tennessee
Capt. Brent Morel - Martin, Tennessee
Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Savage - Livingston, Tennessee
Pfc. Daniel McClenney - Shelbyville, Tennessee
Lance Cpl. Timothy Creager - Millington, Tennessee
Lance Cpl. Brad McCormick - Allons, Tennessee
1st Lt. Andrew Stern - Germantown, Tennessee
Lance Cpl. Tyler Cates - Mt. Juliet, Tennessee
Sgt. Christopher Heflin - Paducah, Kentucky
Lance Cpl. Joshua Dickinson - Lafayette, Tennessee
Pfc. Nathan Clemons - Winchester, Tennessee
Sgt. Morgan Strader
2nd Lt. Heinz Ahlmeyer 
Added Oct. 2006
: Lance Cpl. Richard A. Buerstetta, Franklin, Tennessee
They will not grow old as we that are left grow old. 
Age shall not weary them nor the year condemn. 
At the going down of the sun 
and in the morning we will remember them.
From, "For the Fallen," Laurence Binyon, 1914

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