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Veterans Day Remarks

On Wednesday, Nov. 11, members of the Ohio Northern University community joined with the village of Ada to commemorate Veterans Day on campus. The following address is by keynote speaker and professor of history Dr. John Lomax.

Many thanks to the Ohio Northern Veterans Day Committee and President DiBiasio for inviting to speak at this ceremony to honor veterans.  It is humbling for me to address this assembly of veterans and those others who have gathered here today to express their gratitude to them.

I am a veteran, though not much of one.  I served in the Coast Guard Reserve for 12 years.  I qualified to stand radio watches, but stood far, far fewer of them than the Regulars.  It could be stressful work, but, unlike many of my shipmates, no one ever ordered me into harm’s way.   I don’t have much to show for my 12 years in the Coast Guard Reserve but a sea bag full of musty, out-of-date uniforms; a DD 214; and two pieces of stamped aluminum on interlocking bead chains.

Many forms of citizenship are demanding and important, but today I am reflecting the unique place of military service among the citizenry of the United States.  Let’s back up and take a run at it from the distant past.  In ancient Greece, a citizen was a man who had the right to participate in the political and religious life of his city and the duty to defend it with arms.  

In the United States, citizenship is somewhat different.  Every American citizen has the right to participate in our political life, but we have out-sourced military service to those few of our fellow citizens who have freely sworn to defend our Constitution and obey those whom we as citizens have designated to enforce our will.  It is an open-ended and unconditional commitment to us, their fellow citizens.

By fulfilling their oaths, the men and women whom we honor today rendered themselves sacred, from the Latin “sacrum” – set apart.  By their honorable service, they rendered themselves holy, from the Old English “haelig” – complete.  By virtue of taking up the defense of this nation and its people, members of the military and military veterans are the most complete of citizens.  We consecrate a day – this day – to remember and celebrate their sacrifices on behalf of their fellow citizens.  

The sacrifices are real.  The military has many rules.  Obedience to orders is a way of life.  I recall the rule inscribed above the door of the lifeboat stations of the old U.S. Life-Saving Service.  This rule was a non-negotiable condition of the service of those salt-hardened boat crewmen.  It went like this:  

You have to go out.  You don’t have to come back.

There is not a veteran of any service who does not understand the meaning and force of these words perfectly.  They went out; they came back.  Some of them returned whole.  Some came back broken.  Some came home in a flag-draped box.  

Some veterans talk about it, some don’t.  It’s not our place to ask, much less to demand, “What was it like?”  If it’s really important to you, go ahead and imagine the worst, with the knowledge that it could easily have been worse than you or I can ever imagine.  They are us, but we are not them.  Their service has set them apart and has earned them our respect, and the right to share their memories, or not.

Still, some do talk.  Dad served as a medic in Burma in 1944 and 1945.  He was in-country for 19 months straight.  He came back home with all the plagues of Egypt but otherwise, to all appearances, reasonably whole.  He lived a long life, with his wife of 58 years and six fairly decent children.  He put in 45 years of honest work.  He never met a stranger.  

Dad loved to tell stories, but he told no war stories.  However, when he was 81 he did tell me that he had dreams.  Terrifying dreams.  Dreams that sent him back into the fight, back to Burma, 1944.  Dad was a light sleeper.  Sleep is no gift when the Field of Dreams is a killing field.

Police, fire fighters, and corrections officers share in the aura that envelops those who risk their lives for the common good.  But to imitate is not to be them.  No filmmaker, or actor, or reenactor, or concealed carry permit holder, or “citizen militia” member can appropriate what veterans have earned.  

For they have not fought shoulder to shoulder with their brothers-in-arms, as did the Marines in Fallujah – once described to me as a knife fight in a phone booth;

they have not landed a C-130 on an 800 foot landing strip in the middle of a fire fight;

they have not sat in the door of a Huey, raining down death from the sky, while the enemy returned death to them from the ground;

they have not stood at the helm of a buoy tender in 30-foot seas, plowing through the heaving waves to rescue the crew of a ship that is breaking in two;

most of all, they have not freely sacrificed the hours and days and months and years of their lives on the altar of national defense.  Military service does have it moments:  the strong friendships; the sense of a mission well and truly accomplished; the travel to strange, sometimes exotic, places like Germany, Japan, and Texas; or Korea, or Vietnam, or Afghanistan, or Iraq.  Our men and women in uniform willingly perform their tedious, lonely, dangerous, sometimes deadly duties, often far from home and the people they love.

We ask so much from them, these, the most complete among us:  to stand, to watch; to build, to destroy; to comfort, to terrorize; to fight, to kill, to die.  Who can bear it?  The answer is, of course, those who do bear it and have borne it with courage and fidelity.
So where do we, the general citizenry, fit into this picture?  As with the Spartans at Thermopylae, they acted in obedience to our command.  All of the orders ultimately came from us.  It is disingenuous to dodge responsibility by blaming a President or a Congress.   It all comes back to us, who choose our leaders and empower them to command obedience from those who wear the uniform of the United States.

To disregard or hide away or forget those who have honorably served is shameful and unworthy of a free people.  Abraham Lincoln told us what to do in his Second Inaugural Address:

care for him who shall have borne the battle
and for his widow and his orphan.

Lincoln was not calling for gratitude – although we owe that too – or the empty pieties that sometimes pass for patriotism.  Lincoln was calling for concrete action.  We the citizens of this nation may not in good conscience refuse to pay for services that we ordered and they delivered.  

It is our singular privilege and duty as citizens to step up.  It angers me not a little to hear, “Yes, but where will we find the money?  Haven’t we spent enough already?” or, “Yes, but the problem is so big and complicated that no one can really make it work,” or “Well, we take care of most veterans,” or “Don’t they know yadda, yadda, yadda [just fill in the blank],” or “Why don’t they just move on?”

I say:  The bill is due.  Pay up, and I mean with public money, with our money; work till the work is done; leave no one behind.  No platitudes.  No evasions.  No convenient amnesia.  We needed them then; they need us now.  Closure is not ours to define.  We ordered them to go, and they went.  Unfortunately, we cannot match what they have given.  The difference is too great.  We can, however, move heaven and earth to pay this debt to them, the debt that we can never fully repay.

God bless our men and women in uniform.
God bless our veterans.
God bless the United States of America.