Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day Remarks

Delivered at Veterans Memorial Garden in Wyoming, Michigan on May 31, 2010.

Good evening and thank you for yet another opportunity to speak in this beautiful garden tonight. Let me first say I’m absolutely humbled and honored to be in the very presence of a number of combat veterans and their families. Thank you for your service and all the sacrifices you and your families have made to keep America free and preserve our way of life.

Those of us who are still breathing cannot repay the sacrifice of those who gave their lives defending us, but at the very least, we can and we must remember them.

Men like Warrant Officer Larry Bodell, Lee High School Class of 1966, who at the tender age of 21 was serving as a helicopter co-pilot with the 164th Aviation Group in Vietnam, and had been in-country for less than four months, was killed by hostile action when he took a single small arms round through the head over the An Xugen Province.

Memorial Day is for men like Larry Bodell. It’s also for men like Rollin Jack Kaat, another Lee High School graduate, killed in action while fighting with the 7th Cavalry Regiment in South Korea at just 23 years of age, as well as the 25 other Lee High School grads and hundreds more from this area who gave their lives so that we might be free.

Sadly, none of the more than 1.3 million men and women who have died in service to this nation in wars and conflicts since 1775 can be replaced. Some were husbands, wives, fathers or mothers. Most, like Bodell and Kaat were young – in the prime of their lives. So too were PFC Nicholas Blodgett, Specialist Eric Burri, and Corporal Ross Smith, all three from this city and all casualties of the War on Terror. All left a nation that is in their debt.

If you asked these heroes before they died how they would like to be honored, most would probably say, “Take care of my family.” The empty seat at the dinner table, the smaller gathering on Thanksgiving and the daughter who has no father to walk her down the wedding aisle are painful reminders that they are gone. We owe it to them to continue to live up to President Lincoln’s promise to not just care for him who shall have borne the battle, but for his widow and his orphan, too.

Remembering our fallen once a year is not enough. We who survive must continue the legacy for which they died: the causes of democracy, decency, and patriotism. We must provide comfort and care for those who have returned from the battlefield, even to the point of putting their needs before our own. This is the true spirit of Memorial Day – remembering and honoring the sacrifices of others by caring for their brothers and sisters, who while battle scarred and weary were fortunate enough to come home.

One such individual who embodied the true Memorial Day spirit was a man I had the privilege of calling friend for the past 51 years. Terry Jacamel and I met as kids when Wyoming was still a township, and we grew up together in a neighborhood not far from here doing all the things that kids in the late 50’s and 60’s did. Terry graduated from Rogers High School in 1971, later that year enlisted in the Air Force, and it wasn’t long after, found himself in the Vietnam War. Although fortunate enough to eventually return home, Terry battled a number of physical demons that ultimately led to the continuing deterioration in his health, to the point that he would spend the rest of his life a fully disabled veteran. Terry was one of the strongest, toughest football player and track runner ever to grace the halls of Rogers High School, something you might never have guessed especially if you knew him and saw his declining health in the latter years of his life.

But Terry never let his personal limitations get in the way of assisting veterans and supporting their causes. Arguably one of the most active members of the VFW and Disabled American Veterans, Terry became the face of West Michigan vets as they battled bureaucratic obstacles and complacent political attitudes over veterans’ health care issues, constantly under attack especially during times of relative peace.

Despite years of failing kidney function and open-heart surgery just six years ago, Terry never stopped serving. As long as there was a vet who was suffering, a military family in need, a local reserve unit returning from the battlefield, or a soldier being brought back home for his final rest, Terry was there – until last month, when at the young age of 57, his body finally succumbed to the ravages of disease.

I’ve thought a lot about the loss of my good friend, whose wife Julie, daughter Becky and other members of Terry's family are here tonight, and I’ve come to the realization that God must have spared him from being a direct casualty of war so that he might live to serve others. And serve he did, willing to lead but always eschewing the limelight, even refusing twice to be nominated for the honor of Kent County Veteran of the Year, a title he richly deserved. Alas, in the end this very memorial garden, the dream of Terry and the late Mayor Jack Magnuson - another decorated war hero - now stands as a silent testimonial to Terry’s pride in our armed forces and his legacy of sacrifice and life-long giving.

While Memorial Day is intended to honor our fallen, we should not forget those who have pledged to make the same sacrifice if called upon – the young men and women still serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, the United States, and in more than 130 foreign lands. And we must continue to bear witness for those who never returned from the deserts of the Middle East, the jungles of Vietnam, the “Forgotten War” in Korea, the islands in the Pacific, and the European continent.

Several years ago, retired Navy Admiral Bill Owens wrote in The American Legion Magazine, “Many of us know the pain of losing a comrade who stood by our side. And we have shed many tears when our comrades were lost on battlefields around the world in pursuit of something they knew to be important, something they did on the command of their leaders and with confidence that that leadership would not let them down.”

In 2003, Army Private First Class Diego Rincon of Conyers, Georgia, wrote to this mother from Iraq: “Whether I make it or not, it’s all part of the plan. It can’t be changed, only completed. Mother will be the last word I’ll say. Your face will be the last picture that goes through my eyes. ... I just hope that you’re proud of what I’m doing and have faith in my decisions. I will try hard and not give up. I just want to say sorry for anything I have ever done wrong. And I’m doing it all for you mom. I love you.”

Nineteen year-old Diego never did make it home from Iraq. But we honor him by honoring the request that he made to his mother – to be proud of what he did and to have faith in his decisions.

Freedom is not a gift. Rather, it’s an earned benefit that was paid for by the blood of our heroes. From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terrorism, the sacrifices and caliber of America’s fighting men and women have been nothing short of inspirational.

One of the most poignant poems of World War I is titled “In Flanders Fields.” In it, Canadian John McCrae seems to not only describe the fallen heroes of that war, but those of every era:

“In Flanders fields the poppies grow
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,
Love, 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.”

Let us always remember them.

Thank you and God bless America.

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