I was mulling over some thoughts about what Veterans Day means to me, and happened across the text of a speech I gave 18 years ago while deployed to Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. It was in 2001, just two months after the 9/11 attacks. I was speaking to our troops, who had seen their mission of enforcing the No-Fly Zone in Iraq suddenly double into supporting the forward movement of troops for Operation Enduring Freedom into Afghanistan. And they had no idea what would happen next or when they’d get to go home. What I said to them still holds today, and is for all veterans, especially those still on active duty who are out there guarding our way of life right now:
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I was asked to provide my perspective on what Veterans Day means, and it remains to be seen whether it was courageous or merely foolhardy to give a microphone to a Chief and ask him his opinion. I’ll try to limit my opinions to just Veterans Day for the moment. However, if I were to talk about all the things I’ve thought about Veterans Day, and what it means, I’d be talking all day. Don’t worry…I won’t do that to you…..I’ll let Lt Col Rose do that to you in a few minutes.
My perspective on Veterans Day comes down to quality of life. I keep an eye on quality of life issues, because it’s part of my job and because I happen to live here along with everybody else. I hear complaints about the heat, blowing sand, flies, and having to share bathrooms with 50 other people, and every day I hear somebody say, “I sure will be glad when I can go home.” And I know that for 225 years, American military troops have been saying the same thing, from the snows of Valley Forge, to the steaming jungles of Vietnam, to the vast deserts of Southwest Asia, and just about everywhere in between. For about 28 years now, I’ve been hearing troops say they want to go home, because they want to be with their loved ones and enjoy the American way of life.
Well, if that’s what they want, why did they put on uniforms and go to faraway places and give up that American way of life? Because their Uncle Sam said he needed them. Because they loved their country and their way of life, and they knew that they and their loved ones might lose that way of life if somebody didn’t go when Uncle Sam called. They chose to answer that call, and preserve that way of life.
And that’s the quality of life I was really talking about in the first place…the quality of the American way of life is what Veterans Day means to me. Because it’s not just what you’re willing to endure…it’s what you’re willing to sacrifice that defines your character. Our quality of life is such that our citizens will put on uniforms and pledge to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, and go to faraway places and give up that quality of life for a while, to make sure it will still be there for their loved ones, and it’ll be there when they come home.
The citizens who have done that are our veterans. The impressive thing about our veterans, in addition to the spirit that drives them, is who they are. I never thought about it much until the first time I saw a funeral with a military honor guard. They weren’t active duty military…they were members of the American Legion in my home town. I grew up knowing these people, but I never even knew they had been in the service of their country until I saw them in their uniforms, firing a salute to honor one of their comrades in arms…my Dad. I saw bankers, insurance salesmen, truck drivers, and farmers, and it came home to me that people from every walk of life are veterans of military service. To me, they are the backbone of America. They are what makes our country great, because they are the fundamental quality in our way of life. I know this because I’ve worked with the men and women who have served in the United States Armed Forces for 28 years, and I run into them everywhere. I grew up with them, they’ve been my neighbors, they’ve been my friends, and their ranks happen to include my grandfather, my dad, my brother, my father-in-law, my wife, and my son, among so many others. I know their strength in adversity and their dedication to the principles of freedom. I have great faith in them. They are my heroes.
Because for the last 225 years there have been military troops who did what their country asked of them, because they made sacrifices, because they lived “service before self”…these are the veterans we honor today.
But we don’t honor them because they put up with uncomfortable weather, and sand, and flies. I like the way Tom Clancy put it in one of his earlier books, and my apologies to him if I don’t remember it quite perfectly, but it went something like this: “One of the benefits of being in the military, aside from the opportunity to make less money than an equally talented civilian, is the off chance of being killed.”
You see, they knew that, and still they went. That’s the kind of love of our country and the spirit that gives us our quality of life…that people would be willing to put themselves in harm’s way to ensure that the American way of life endures. That doesn’t mean they want that harm to find them…I know I don’t. I want to go home in about a month, and be able to say, thanks to our Top 3 fundraiser, that I’ve been there, done that, and got the T-shirt. But do you know what my father-in-law can say? “Been there, done that, got the Purple Heart.” The dedication to our country and the principles of freedom are what has given our veterans the courage to face whatever may come, and their courage and their character are what give me faith in the future of America, which brings me to another facet of quality of life.
When TSgt Wilbur was setting this up, he told me I was invited because I could give the perspective of the old guy, the one who’d been around a while, the one who was on his way out the door. Thank you, Sergeant Wilbur, for bringing that up so tactfully. But it’s true…within a couple of years, depending on Stop Loss and High Year of Tenure waivers, of course, I’ll be retired. I’ll be sitting on the beach somewhere, living in the great comfort afforded me by my huge retirement check, and I won’t be coming back to this beach. I may be a vague memory for some people, and there may be some comment now and then about that crusty old Chief with the big camouflaged coffee cup…and it’s a shame the words “crusty” and “old” always show up at the same time as the word “Chief,” but that’s life… but I won’t be here to guide, advise, mentor, or otherwise influence all the actions that will be going on around the world, that will keep my country free and my way of life intact. But I’m not worried, because that’s where my faith in the veterans of the American Armed Forces comes in.
Because who am I talking about? You. You are also the veterans who are being honored today. You are the people with the willingness to put on a uniform and go to faraway places, who pledged to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, who are willing to put yourselves in harm’s way to ensure that the American way of life endures. You are the ones who have earned my faith and my respect, and I know that you, and others just like you, will be making sure that I have the freedom and the safety to sit on that beach and live the quality of life that comes with being an American. You’ll be taking care of me, and you’ll be taking care of my country. You are veterans of the United States Armed Forces, and you are my heroes. And for what you have done, and for what you will do, I thank you.”