Memorial Day Speech 2012 Westminster, MD

Good morning. I am honored and humbled to be in the presence of everyone here today and thank you for coming out to pay tribute to the sacrifices of those who have come before us. Before I get started I want to recognize American Legion Post 31 for organizing Westminster’s Memorial Day observance for over 80 years, and especially Skip Amass who has put so much effort into planning this year’s event, my brother, Michael, who, last year, asked me if I would participate in this year’s observance, canvassed for me to do it and whose daughters, Kayla and Mary Katherine, I borrowed for the parade this morning, my parents, Michael and Barbara, who are here this morning, and my wife, Christine, who out of 18 years of marriage has faithfully endured more than 9 of them without me. Although, sometimes I think she actually endured the times when I was home, not the other way around.

This year is a very commemorative year in that it marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the War of 1812, our second war for independence, and the 145th anniversary of Westminster celebrating Memorial Day. Francis Scott Key, a citizen from what now encompasses Carroll County played a special part in the War of 1812 and a Westminster citizen, the locally celebrated Mary Bostwick Shellman, played a special part in starting the tradition of Memorial Day in Westminster.

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, has its origins in the American Civil War, in which over 618,000 service members lost their lives from both the North and the South. No one town, organization, or individual can justifiably claim credit for being the birthplace or originator of the day, because it was a chain of events that led us to remember all who gave their lives for our nation, which was germinated in the hearts of countless thousands who wept for those they lost.

Some of the earliest evidence of Decoration Day can be found in Nella L. Sweet’s 1867 hymn “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping”, which carried the dedication:

“To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead” (pause) and it goes like this:

(pause)

Kneel where our loves are sleeping, Dear ones days gone by,

Here we bow in holy reverence, Our bosoms heave the heartfelt sigh.

They fell like brave men, true as steel, And pour’d their blood like rain,

We feel we owe them all we have, And can but weep and kneel again.

Kneel where our loves are sleeping, They lost but still were good and true,

Our fathers, brothers fell still fighting, We weep, ’tis all that we can do.

Here we find our noble dead, Their spirits soar’d to him above,

Rest they now about his throne, For God is mercy, God is love.

Then let us pray that we may live, As pure and good as they have been,

That dying we may ask of him, To open the gate and let us in.

(pause)

This hymn and the devotion of the Southern ladies to their fallen men and other similar sentiments expressed around the nation so moved General John A. Logan, national commander of a veterans organization called the Grand Army of the Republic that he wrote an order that Decoration Day be observed nationwide and it was soon after observed on 30 May 1868. Mary Bostwick Shellman, the 19 year old daughter of the first mayor of Westminster, was one of the first civilians to follow General Logan’s order and as a result Westminster was one of a handful of towns in America to adorn the graves of soldiers with flowers in May of that same year.

Decoration Day grew in popularity as towns across America followed this example and remembered their fallen heroes with freshly cut flowers and markers on their graves. As years passed by and America became involved in other wars, the day became a time to remember the fallen from each of our wars going back to the first, our fight for independence.

Although, the term, “Memorial Day”, was first used in 1882, it did not become commonly used until after World War II and in 1967 it was declared the official name by federal law.

It is no coincidence that Memorial Day, has its origins in the American Civil War, because out of all the wars we have fought, we lost more men in real terms and as a percentage of our population than any other war. The American Civil War cost us almost 2% of our population and the war with the next highest war dead as a percentage of population is the War for Independence in which we lost almost 1%. WWII is the next highest in real terms with 418,500 service members, which was 0.3% of the population.

(pause)

 To put the Civil War’s fatalities in perspective of today’s population it is equivalent to loosing 6,153,713 service members.

(pause)

It is difficult for me to imagine loosing 6,153,713 people out of today’s population. That is more than four times the total active duty personnel we have in all our armed forces today and it is thirty-six times the total population of Carroll County and just over 100% of the total population of Maryland.

(pause)

The number is staggering and it is easy to understand why so many people would have a desire to remember what they lost. This was especially true in the South in which they lost 2.8% of their total population or 4.7% when taking other factors into account. That is equivalent to loosing between one and a half to two and a half times the current total population of Maryland, which includes men, women and children. When you isolate this to predominately one gender and spread it out over eleven States it is easy to understand why the ladies of the South were decorating the graves of the Confederate dead, (pause) because the odds were that they were related to more than just one of them.

Westminster, where two companies of the Delaware Calvary attacked a larger Confederate force under General J.E.B. Stuart during what has become to be known as Corbit’s charge and Westminster, which is positioned so close to Gettysburg where the 2nd Maryland Line Confederate fought the 1st Maryland Infantry, Potomac Home Brigade at the battle of Culp’s Hill, understood the casualties caused by having combatants on both sides of the line.  My great grandmother also understood it, because her son, William H. Shipley, fought at Culp’s Hill, was wounded and left for dead on the battlefield.

I am providing these facts, so that we can all remember that wars cost lives and these are not just numbers, they are people who had mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends. We need to be thankful to everyone who has served our nation in the armed forces and especially to those who lost their lives in doing so.

Most tragically we are losing over 1,000 WWII veterans each day and with each one passing die a piece of history, which has enriched our nation. We need to cherish them while they are still among us. Of significant note, Charles Fisher Sr. who has been a regular fixture in Westminster’s parade for almost 90 years was just released from the hospital and is still very ill, please pray for him.

Since last Memorial Day 8 veterans from American Legion Post 31 have passed away, this includes 3 World War II veterans. Most recently, Airman First Class Matt Seidler, a Westminster native, was killed by an IED on 5 Jan 2012 while serving in Afghanistan.These are people you may have known; who may have touched your lives and are with us no longer. Additionally,

(pause)

I had the dubious distinction of being the executive officer of the SEAL Team that lost the first two SEALs in Iraq and I can tell you firsthand what that meant. We were deployed to the Al Anbar in 2006, which was an insurgent stronghold and the Marines and SEALs were working diligently, hand-in-hand, to break the back of the insurgency. We were half way through our deployment when on Wednesday August 2nd we received a report that one of our SEALs in Task Unit Ramadi had been injured. He was a Mk 46 gunner, which is a belt-fed machine gun very similar to the Squad Automatic Weapon, and he was providing covering fire from a roof top when an insurgent shot his weapon from which a piece of shrapnel lodged behind his eyes, blinding him for life. They medivaced him from that position and the platoon consolidated in another location prior to going back out on the battle field. Marine Corps Armored personnel carriers transported them to a building in which the insurgents were reportedly congregating. The platoon flooded out of the APCs and conducted a building assault. It was in the ensuing firefight that Petty Officer Mark Lee was killed, he was 28 years old.

Those were very dark times for us. The loss of even one person is tragic, but for a small unit like the SEALs it is devastating. The commanding officer, who was greatly affected by the loss, was at the Joint Special Operations Task Force Headquarters when this happened; so I had to make many decisions without his final approval, one of which was to hold a memorial service for that Friday. He returned to our compound on Thursday and sometime Friday morning he decided he was not ready to have the service. When I heard about this from the Command Master Chief the first thing I asked was, “Does General Zilmer know?” Major General Zilmer was the Marine Corps general in charge of Multi-National Forces West and I wanted to make sure he did not show up to a service that had been canceled. The Command Master Chief assured me that this had been done, so I settled into taking care of the day’s business. Communication being what it is in a war zone, somehow the message was not delivered to General Zilmer and shortly thereafter I saw him walking down the corridor of our command tent. The CO was speechless, but General Zilmer was gracious and said, “don’t worry about it, and I hope you don’t get good at doing these things.”

(pause)

I wish his statement could have been true, but it was not to be. We were wrapping up combat operations and getting ready to turn the Area of Operations over to SEAL Team FIVE when the Commanding Officer approved one last mission. The operation included a sniper overwatch, where at this location three SEALs were on a rooftop observing a section of Ramadi. The two SEALs on either side were on guns looking over a parapet wall which surrounded the rooftop. The third SEAL, named Michael, was sitting between them with a spotter scope, spotting for his teammates. Of the three SEALs, only Michael had an immediate exit from their confined rooftop position.

An insurgent hugged the wall below their position and tossed a hand grenade up. The grenade came over the parapet wall, bounced off Michael’s front body armor plate, and landed on the rooftop in front of him. Michael yelled, “Grenade” as he dove and trapped it between his left arm and chest. It exploded causing minor shrapnel wounds to the legs of the other two SEALs. The Task Unit Commander came running up from downstairs and took Michael in his arms where he died a short time later.

(pause)

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

  (pause)

Petty Officer Michael Monsoor was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Some of you might be familiar with this story from being featured during the last Republican National Convention in which fellow SEALs took the gold tridents off their uniforms and pounded them into the top of Michael’s casket at Rosecrans Cemetery, Point Loma, California. Additionally, the new movie, Act of Valor, also portrays a similar event based on Michael’s story.

I attended the Medal of Honor ceremonies in Washington and watched Michael’s parents receive our nation’s highest award, but as I looked into their eyes I felt as if they would have traded 100 medals of honor to have their son back, Michael was 25 years old when he was killed.

(pause)

The Commanding Officer cared deeply for every one of his personnel and after Mark Lee’s death, he would frequently tell me about how he would lay in bed at night and try to imagine what it was like to be blind. After Michael was killed and the emergency was over he reacted in a way a father would who had lost his son.  (pause) The deaths of his personnel is something that still bothers him to this day and his torment has only increased since Petty Officer Ryan Job, who was blinded the day Mark Lee was killed, died on 24 September 2009 after a major reconstructive surgery, he was 28 years old.

(pause)

Petty Officer Ryan Job was an amazing individual and his story is very inspiring. The grandson of a World War II fighter pilot,  he dreamed of following in his grandfather’s footsteps and in high school he worked part time as a janitor to pay for flying classes and earned his pilot’s license at age 17. Later, while attending his third year of college his ambitions shifted and he dropped out of the University of Washington to enlist in the Navy to attempt to become a Navy SEAL. He obviously succeeded.

When he was wounded in Iraq he completely lost his right eye and it appeared as if the entire right side of his head was open. With massive amounts of blood hemorrhaging from his wounds it seemed as if he would not survive, but he propped himself up so he would not choke on his own blood and comforted his teammates by telling them it would be OK.

After he returned from Iraq, his girlfriend Kelly, who he wanted to marry prior to his deployment, but postponed the ceremony for fear of making her a widow, stayed by his side throughout his numerous brain and facial reconstruction surgeries in many different hospitals around the nation. It was she who broke the news to him that he would be completely blind forever, and he responded by saying, “Well, if I’m going to be blind, I’m going to be the best blind man there is.”

Ryan and Kelly got married in 2007, and eventually moved to Phoenix, Arizona with the help of the Sentinels of Freedom Scholarship Foundation. He completed a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a 4.0 GPA, obtained an internship from General Dynamics and was offered a full-time job.

His other accomplishments after his recovery included climbing Mount Rainier, training for a triathlon and becoming a spokesman for an organization that helps wounded veterans transition to civilian life. Ryan truly overcame every obstacle put in his path and rose far above his circumstances, he never allowed anything to keep him down, but his untimely death deprived him of getting to know his daughter, Leah, who was born six months after he passed away.

(pause)

Wars have a very real human cost and it is important we think about that cost and all those who came before us who paid the price or those who might do the same in the future. Yet, we should not limit this to once a year; each of us needs to remember this daily, especially when we make decisions on how we choose to conduct ourselves as a society. We need to remember that thoughts, ideas and beliefs have real consequences, so let us honor our war dead by upholding the values our first service members died to secure, which are now embodied in the original intent or our Constitution and the foundation of law upon which it was based, this would be the most fitting tribute any of us could provide.

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

Thank you, and America Bless God!!

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