This morning, I attended a very moving early Veterans Day ceremony held at Northern Illinois University. Usually, the yearly remembrance is slated for the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month; but, due to the national holiday falling on a weekend, NIU held its ceremony today.
September and October's long Indian Summer has delayed the dropping of our leaves, many of which are brilliantly peaking at the moment. The sun shone, the weather was crisp but clear, and the fall colors combined to create a photographer's dream canvas.
Photos and transcript of the morning's reflections by NIU Veterans Club President and Iraq War veteran SSG John Galan, Naval veteran and Club Advisor Jon Lehuta, and NIU ROTC Department of Military Sciences Chairman LTC Craig Engel below the fold.
[View all photos at Flickr.]
Transcript of comments made today (apologies that Galan's first few minutes are not available; I was so busy taking pictures that I was late in turning my audio recorder on):
SSG John Galan: [...] "I think it's imperative that our citizens realize when they see us that we represent not just a nation, a free nation, we represent more than ourselves. We represent all of our brothers and sisters in arms that haven't made it home. We are compelled to do their memory justice.
It makes me angry when I hear that people of our nation are able to say exactly who's won various honors like the Nobel prize, quote sports statistics, but they can't name people like Michael Murphy or Randall Shughart or Gary Gordon -- people who have since Vietnam gotten the Medal of Honor. They pass out awards every year, but there's been only five who have received the Medal of Honor. Now there's Paul Smith.
The most recent was Michael Murphy, a lieutenant, that was a Navy Seal who died in Afghanistan in 2005. He was awarded by President Bush on October 22nd. While it got some media attention, it's not where it should be in the minds of our citizens. That's something that I believe all of you are going to make a difference in changing by doing things like being here this morning.
When I get angry [about this], it galvanizes my resolve to correct those inequities. Moments like these make me proud. I can remember that patriotism is more than just a bumper sticker and it's more than just a bromide.
With that, I'd like to introduce our next speaker: a veteran of the Navy, our faculty advisor who has done a very wonderful job for the Veterans Club, and a good buddy of mine, Jon Lehuta.
Jon Lehuta: Good morning, and thank you for coming.
Looking through the crowd, I see a lot of the same old faces. I'm afraid I'll be preaching to the choir again; but, that's OK because I'm pretty sure the choir's going to listen. Those of you who know me, know that I'm not going to waste your time trying to convince you that veterans deserve recognition, that they deserve aftercare, health care, after what they've sacrificed.
Most of you know of their heroism because you've come face-to-face, you've known heroes. You've met them face-to-face, you know them as people, as friends, your comrades-in-arms. I wish I could stand up here today and say that we're doing a great job of taking care of our injured veterans, people returning home. But we're not.
There are still long waits at the VA. We see the increases in demand that are well documented would seem to indicate an increase in the veterans' budget, but that hasn't happened. At least not at a substantial extent.
Recent studies indicate that 1-in-3 of our returning veterans seek psychiatric help when they get back. Fully half of those are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. So we have a huge, huge number of our soldiers who need help. Not just our soldiers from Iraq.
1-in-4, 1-in-4 of our homeless in this country turn out to be veterans. Their actual numbers in the population are 1-in-11, so they're probably double the homeless rate for our veterans. We may be able to link that back to post-traumatic stress disorder, I don't know. But the numbers are still there.
Our system is letting them down badly.
I've heard stories where soldiers are being charged for their food in the hospital while they're healing from their wounds. I've heard stories where people are being charged $250 now to basically be admitted to the VA system. Reservists are losing their homes and their businesses because of the shortfalls in pay. They had better paying jobs before they went into service.
The numbers game is being used by our administration to split the magnitude of the problem, to lessen them. ...The Disabled American Veterans disputes the administration's claim of just 30,000 wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quote, "That 30,000 number is a fantasy. 202,000 have filed claims for VA disability. A quarter of a million have turned to the VA for treatment. Our government is trying to do the war on the cheap."
I could go on.
We think the need for a strong after-care system should be a no-brainer. But it seems it's not the case with our leaders. In response to this well-documented increase in demand, the administration's new choice for VA secretary is characterized by VA Watchdog.org as a budget-cutting bureaucrat...This is certainly not the time for a cost-cutting bureaucrat as VA secretary.
Look it up, and then be heard.
It may be cynical for me to suggest that politicians only do things for votes; but, it's all proven in large blocks of unhappy voters could motivate them. We need to become that large block. We need to do our homework and [...] our leaders when they are not providing the level of support we need.
We know what heroes are. We know who they are, and what they deserve. We should be making that call. We need to be staying active in our veterans organizations. If nothing else, maintain the membership and be counted as a voting veteran. Those things are noticed.
And ultimately, we need to do what we need to do to get a number of problems solved out here. We need to do what it takes. If we need to become one issue voters -- something I generally try to avoid; but, dammit, these kids deserve a lot better than they're getting right now -- then that's what we need to do.
Let's get hot and do that.
In closing, I just have one quick quote. This is also from VA Watchdog.org. (If you do want to become active and engage in some of these issues, that's a good place to start.) They have a quote here:
"Caring for a dead veteran is easy. Bring a wreath, say a few words and walk away. Caring for a living veteran requires time, money and a life-long commitment. Every Veterans Day, our politicians show they don't know the difference as they visit a cemetery instead of a VA Hospital."
Galan: Our next speaker is Lt. Col. Craig Engel from the NIU ROTC program.
LTC Craig Engel: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining me on this Veterans Day as we honor the men and women throughout our nation's history who chose to serve their country in a military uniform. The act of donning a military uniform is a deeply symbolic act. It always has been, and it likely always will be. It is an act that experiences a deep and selfless commitment to the idea we call America.
When ordinary men and women step into the uniform of this nation, they commit themselves to the performance of an extraordinary duty, which may entail the highest and most fearsome call. By undertaking this duty to sacrifice for others one may never know -- or for those with whom one may not agree -- our veterans have taken the idea of a free nation and turned it into the reality of a free nation.
America's veterans have answered the call to duty, and that is why we honor their service today. That is why we should honor their service each day. Since 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson set aside the 11th day of November as Armistice Day, which was officially made a federal holiday in 1938, Americans in communities large and small have gathered together just as we are today to honor our veterans.
We congregate in parks, we assemble in community halls, we kneel on grave sites, we march along parade routes. We do these things as a way of thanking veterans for their service to our nation. Among our grandfathers, our mothers, our brothers, our daughters , some defended freedom with their vary lives. Most have defended freedom with their precious time. They devoted two or 10 or 30 years to the idea that freedom is worth the time in a life that is lived but once, and for that we owe them our gratitude.
On this Veterans Day, when I think our rich heritage of men and women in uniform who have been the strength of our nation the name Robert Walton, Jr. comes to mind. 1st Lt. Walton served in World War I with N Company of the 82nd All-American Division, 328 Infantry Battalion. On October 9, 1918, Walton and his men had been fighting for six hours outside the town of Verne, France. The town was held by numerous German machine gun posts.
Imagine, if you will, the toll of six hours of fighting had taken on the 328 Infantry Battalion. They must have been exhausted; yet, Lt. Walton, believing so strongly in his men and their duty, volunteered to lead 16 of them on a night patrol. These Americans worked at clearing the town of the enemy from 11 o'clock at night until the next morning. They captured 65 prisoners and two machine guns.
Then, with three other soldiers, young Robert Walton entered an enemy trench and captured 23 more prisoners. Walton refused to listen to his natural instincts telling him to play it safe, to take a much-deserved rest. Instead, he gathered up his courage and entered that trench, leading his men into severe danger because his duty required it.
For his actions he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and France's Croix de Guerre with Palm. 1st Lt. Robert Walton is just one example of everything that is good and right about America's armed forces.We expect our soldiers to be strong in heart, mind and character. You can see that same inner strength when you talk to one of our nation's veterans and ask them why he or she served.
It is an enduring quality.
You will see in their eyes their blaze of patriotism, you will see it today if you look. This strength is truly the strength of America. It transcends the power of military equipment, no matter how impressive. The strength of America comes from the extraordinary commitment of ordinary Americans to serve something bigger than themselves. Quite simply, the idea that freedom is a reality worthy of the most dedicated of efforts.
On Veterans Day, we honor the service of past generations. But we also look to future generations. Today's veterans, custodians of the cherished memory, have also made it their duty to support those now in uniform. [They are] the continuity between the generations. They uniquely know what it means to serve. They have a clear-eyed grasp of what those who are serving need so that they can do their duty.
Soldiers carry heavy rucksacks. They face challenges of extreme heat, numbing cold, stresses and long hours that take every ounce of their stamina as they do their duty. Our soldiers, supported by their families -- the Army civilians -- epitomize the very best of America. Working together with their sister services, they are a team of teams.
Their efforts do not go unnoticed.
Our nation's veterans are watching over them, looking for opportunities to lend a hand. Our veterans understand that we have been in an area of persistent conflict with an adaptive enemy fueled by extremist ideology. Our veterans advocate for a strong defense, for the best equipment, training and leadership. They fight for health care and benefits for those who have served, and when necessary, hold the military and our government accountable.
Veterans know the hearts and minds of today's soldiers. They know the misery of marching for hours through cold rain and they know the joy of seeing and touching American soil after long overseas service.
From one generation to the next, certain elements of war may change. Uniforms have fewer buttons and more velcro. Computers are everywhere. The Army is transforming so that it can fight and win in a full spectrum of conflict with counter insurgents to major land war. But one thing remains the same: the heart of the American soldier.
Soldiers still believe in the cause for which they have served and are still willing to risk everything for those to their left and right and for those back home. Our veterans remember what it is like to be part of a closely-bonded team. It matters little if their tour of duty was associated with combat, for not all see combat, but all serve. More important, there is something about service which brings diverse members close together.
For that one special period in the time of a life, whether it was on a frosty hillside in Korea or a money maneuver area in Germany during the Cold War, men and women in the spring of life breathe in a common experience of service and will never be the same. That's one reason why our veterans have a vested interest in what our Army does today.
They may not know all the specifics and new programs like Future Combat Systems, the Army's modernization program of networked manned and unmanned systems that will enable our soldiers to dominate in complex environments. Nor may our veterans be completely up on the improvements we're making to treat catastrophic battle injuries, but they do know that the Army's going through a period of very significant change.
They know of our obligation to care for those that have served us. As Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, "We have a duty to care for him who shall have borne that battle, and for his widow and his orphan."
Our veterans realize our Army is out of balance, and that our soldiers and families are stressed by lengthy, repeated deployments. Many of our support systems, including health care, education and family services were designed for a pre-9/11 peacetime Army. And they are straining under the pressure of six years of war.
The Army is doing all we can to repair and rebuild these support systems. Initiatives like the Army's Warrior Transition Brigades in our hospitals, help wounded warriors and their families contend with injuries, recover, and the possible transition into civilian life and into the Department of Veterans Affairs for health care and benefits.
The Army is acting to restore the balance and reserve the strength and capability of our all-volunteer force. Through our new family covenant, the Army is saying to its soldiers and families: We are listening and we're taking action to help.
The covenant commits the Army to provide families a strong, supportive environment where they can thrive. It means actually improving housing, better health care and child support services for families. As one Army wife said, the covenant solidifies the Army's commitment to building a partnership with Army families.
These programs and efforts to care for soldiers and their families would not be as effective as they are without the support of veterans. Here are just a few examples of how veterans are making a difference in our lives, and the lives of our soldiers in our community:
Bill Reagan, for the VFW Post #452 in Montgomery, organized that post's "Armed and Ready" seminar for soldiers returning from overseas. The purpose of Armed and Ready is to make veterans receive what they are promised. The post provides information to soldiers on education and other benefits, assist them in filing claims, and afford soldiers the opportunity to network for job search and other career guidance. Armed and Ready is underway at several VFW posts in Northern Illinois.
Another example of veterans taking care of soldiers is Bob [...] at Post #1197 in Batavia. He organizes the post's monthly care packages drive, where the post sends out 30 packages to soldiers overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. These packages let soldiers overseas know that they are not forgotten.
Also not forgotten are the disable veterans here in our community. Mark [...] of VFW Post 2164 in Wheaton organizes "Hines Blind," where the post brings out blind veterans from the Edward Hines VA Hospital in the west suburbs to Wheaton to enjoy monthly bingo games. Sitting side-by-side with members of the post helps them enjoy some fun and friendship.
These are a few examples of local veteran support to their comrades overseas and stateside. As Mr. Paul [...], commander of the VFW in district 19 in Illinois stated, "Veterans take care of veterans." No one asked any of these veterans to do these things. There's no special law requiring them to extend their service to the nation. No one is paying them for their time and effort, and they are under no obligation to continue their service.
No, our veterans do this because they understand what it takes to be a soldier. They know all too well the demands place on soldiers and their families, and that makes them all more determined to support our men and women in uniform. They have taken our Warrior Ethos to heart: These veterans still place mission first, they will never quit, and they will never leave a fallen comrade.
Those of us who still wear the uniform look to those of you who have gone before us with admiration and gratitude. On this day of honoring veterans, we remember all that you have done for our nation and all that you continue to do unasked.
We have all heard the phrase, "Thank a vet." The longer version might go something like this: If you love the freedoms this country has to offer, thank a vet. Most veterans will probably tell you that serving their country was a privilege and no thanks are necessary.
I would ask that each of us resolve to leave here today and personally find someone we know who has served, or is currently serving in uniform, and tell them how grateful we are for their selfless service. They have given so much of themselves to make this nation strong, and they leave us a legacy of which we can all be proud.
They leave us this wonderful reality that we call America. May God bless our nation and those who have served her.
In addition to my applause, I shed more tears today during this ceremony than any other that I've attended over the years. I spoke with both Galan and Lehuta immediately afterwards but didn't get very far through my tears. Lehuta's discussion of the very issues that I've been honored and humbled to be working on with so many of you these past two years was unexpected and touched my heart deeply, as did the words of Galan and Engel.
Thank you to all of them -- and for all of our service members, veterans and military families -- for their sacrifice. I'm thinking of those unable to be with loved ones this weekend. And I'm sending a special thanks to NIU's Veterans Club for putting a wonderful Veterans Day ceremony together for us today.
It was an honor to be there with you all.
The NIU Veterans Club placed this plaque in 1956 at the site of today's ceremony. Inscribed are two lines from the following poem:
by John Greenleaf Whittier
No Berserk thirst of blood had they,
No battle-joy was theirs, who set
Against the alien bayonet
Their homespun breasts in that old day.
Their feet had trodden peaceful, ways;
They loved not strife, they dreaded pain;
They saw not, what to us is plain,
That God would make man's wrath his praise.
No seers were they, but simple men;
Its vast results the future hid
The meaning of the work they did
Was strange and dark and doubtful then.
Swift as their summons came they left
The plough mid-furrow standing still,
The half-ground corn grist in the mill,
The spade in earth, the axe in cleft.
They went where duty seemed to call,
They scarcely asked the reason why;
They only knew they could but die,
And death was not the worst of all!
Of man for man the sacrifice,
All that was theirs to give, they gave.
The flowers that blossomed from their grave
Have sown themselves beneath all skies.
Their death-shot shook the feudal tower,
And shattered slavery's chain as well;
On the sky's dome, as on a bell,
Its echo struck the world's great hour.
That fateful echo is not dumb
The nations listening to its sound
Wait, from a century's vantage-ground,
The holier triumphs yet to come,--
The bridal time of Law and Love,
The gladness of the world's release,
When, war-sick, at the feet of Peace
The hawk shall nestle with the dove!--
The golden age of brotherhood
Unknown to other rivalries
Than of the mild humanities,
And gracious interchange of good,
When closer strand shall lean to strand,
Till meet, beneath saluting flags,
The eagle of our mountain-crags,
The lion of our Motherland!
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