Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dixon Elks Lodge Veteran's Dinner: Pictures and Remarks

So much has been happening over the past few days on the national news front as far as combat PTSD is concerned, but offline responsibilities have taken me away from taking a look at much of it myself.

After sharing my pictures and remarks from a local event I attended last night honoring our area troops and veterans, I'll begin chipping away at the mountain of studies and reports that have come out since last week. Thanks for your patience.

I'd like to send out my deep appreciation to the members of the Dixon [IL] Elks Lodge #779 for hosting such a fine evening last night. What an honor to speak to a crowd of veterans from WWII to Iraq, and to have received such a warm wave of applause -- many even standing, which moved me greatly -- in addition to the positive comments they shared with me following my remarks.

I was taken aback and so humbled. Thank you...

I also want to thank Mike and Kim Bowman, parents of Tim Bowman, for coming out to see me. We chatted for hours about their son, a local veteran who committed suicide following his safe return from a tour in Iraq (his case was one that was presented last night in a compelling CBS news piece that I will post on next).

Military families like the Bowmans, the Omvigs, the Luceys, the Schulzes, Laura Kent, and so many others have done a supreme service in coming forward to educate us on their experiences and losses. We are greatly indebted to them.

A big dollop of personal thanks as well goes to Dick Pierce, a local Vietnam veteran who lobbied his lodge to extend the invitation to me (the Dixon Lodge previously honored me by ordering copies of Moving a Nation to Care and donating them to the local National Guard -- another Dick-inspired lobbying effort).

Dick has worked the past two years to educate this civilian novice to the best of his abilities by taking me on tours of local VA centers, Chicago's Jesse Brown VAMC, bringing me in with him to meet with public officials, and putting me in direct contact with area National Guard unit leaders who have helped to bring their plight further to light for me.

Thank you doesn't seem like enough, but thank you.

I so appreciate your generosity of spirit towards me, but even more especially towards all others in the area that you have helped and continue to help throughout the years. No one works harder on the issue of getting veterans the care they deserve than Dick. He walks the walk like no other, personally checking in on and driving veterans to check-ups and doing a whole host of other things for his peers locally and nationally, not to mention taking the time to take a civilian like me under his wing and cheering them on like a proud Papa.

Thanks, 'Dad,' for that incredibly warm introduction last night.

View all photos from last night at Flickr.

My remarks:

dixonelks_08[Thanks given for introduction, to Elks Lodge leaders, and members in attendance.] It’s a great honor to have been asked to say a few words here with you today.

I treasure being an American.

But for a revolutionary moment half a century ago, I almost didn’t get the chance to experience all the gifts that this country offers its citizens. If not for a fateful late October day in 1956, I would have lived a much different life. I would have missed out on the opportunity to have been born into freedom, to have grown up in peace and prosperity, to have the right to cast a vote, to speak openly and to move freely. I could have easily been born under oppression.

But my father had a burning desire. A desire shared by people all over the world still today. The people of Afghanistan possess it. The Iraqis do as well. The longing to live in a free nation and to live in a world where justice and opportunity and liberty thrive is eternal and universal. It flows through our veins just as surely as forefathers far and wide have spilt blood in hot pursuit of it. My father’s desire for self-determination was no different.

And it would lead him and my mother to America.

dixonelks_21In 1995, just as Ronald Reagan had in 1981 and 1986, Illinois’ then-Governor Jim Edgar proclaimed October 23rd Hungarian Freedom Fighter Day. During the ceremony, my father was chosen to receive a commemorative plaque on behalf of Chicago’s Hungarian-American community. He accepted it proudly, yet stoically – just like a soldier. He’d had a lot of practice.

As a young boy he witnessed World War Two and the Nazi occupation from his family farm in the Hungarian countryside. As a teenager, after the conclusion of the war, he found himself under repressive Soviet rule. Conscripted into the Hungarian Army when he was 20, my father served in antitank artillery for two years beginning in 1953.

But it would be 1956 that would change his life’s direction – and mine – when he picked up arms and joined others in a quest for freedom on the streets of Budapest. The Hungarian Revolution had begun. What started as an afternoon’s peaceful student protest, by nightfall quickly developed into a national armed conflict with the mighty Soviet Union. Without hesitation, my father joined his fellow countrymen and women in liberty’s cause. And they won.

For ten glorious October days Hungary was free. Oh, the cheers as they watched the Ruskies pulling their troops out of Budapest! To their horror, however, freedom would soon slip from their grip. Fresh Soviet forces reclaimed the city in a bloody month which killed thousands and sent many others to prison. My father realized, after having cast his lot with the freedom fighters, that November would be his last in the nation of his birth. He and my mother fled to the West with a wave of others landing on the shores of America.

dixonelks_16He again became a soldier in 1958. This time, he wore a United States Army uniform. Imagine. Within a brilliant burst of 5 years, my father went from living a life of modest opportunity and great oppression to serving in the greatest military on earth as a combat engineer, stationed in Germany – with Elvis Presley no less.


At 28, his two years of service behind him, he came home.

To America.

Growing up my sisters and I often heard my father say, “You can always tell how a government feels about its people by looking at how it treats its soldiers.” Certainly, that impression came from the unique perspectives he had of serving on both sides, in both armies – East and West – during the Cold War.

He was proud to wear the American uniform, he was proud to have been able to serve this country, his country. And even as a young girl I remember sneaking into the special closet in our home that contained his pressed and preserved uniforms and looking at them with wonder. I even slipped into them once (don’t tell my dad), and I remember the power that the uniform possessed.

Over the weekend, I attended Northern Illinois University’s Veterans Day Ceremony, and ROTC Department of Military Sciences Chairman LTC Craig Engel spoke about the special aura of the United States military uniform. He said:

“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.”

Answering the call as so many of you here have, selflessly giving up your time with family and friends, putting the safety of your body and the peace of your mind on the line for all of us in order to serve in uniform is the greatest sacrifice any human being can make for another. Meanwhile, as a mere civilian and citizen who reaps the rewards of those personal sacrifices on my behalf, I must honor those gifts and pay down that debt – if it is ever even possible -- with my attention, my respect, and my actions on your behalf.

dixonelks_20Civilians, now more than ever, need to consider what role we can play on the home front. We must ensure that those troops serving overseas and those veterans who’ve blessedly returned home have everything that they need to achieve their mission while they are away and successfully pick up their lives once more when they return home. We must ensure that military families are cared for and about while their loved ones are away and when their loved ones return as well.

That’s why I’ve been so thrilled to see all of the incredible efforts made on behalf of our military families by communities such as Dixon’s. I’ve been honored to have met with Mayor Jim Burke as he works to find bridges between community resources and the military needs of the local National Guard population. Our National Guard soldiers have been asked to do more today than at any other time in our nation’s great history. And they have answered the call admirably.

Let me share one example of their special sacrifice and experience with you. Florida National Guardsman John Crawford was among the first to cross over into Iraq from Kuwait in March 2003. He returned to pen a New York Times bestseller, The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, revealing one frustration unique to the weekend warrior serving in the Middle East:

We crossed the berm the same day as the army’s Third Infantry Division, leading the invasion of Iraq. [But] when the Third Division was sent home, our National Guard unit was passed around the armed forces like a virus: the 108th Airborne, First Marine Expeditionary, 101st Airborne, and finally the Armored Division. They were all sent home, heroes of the war. Meanwhile, my unit stayed on, my soul rotting, our unit outlasted by no one in our tenure there. The Florida National Guard, forgotten, unnoticed – at one point the government even declared that we had been pulled out of Baghdad and brought home, although all around us the capital of our enemy seethed.

No longer serving primarily stateside, National Guard and Reserve presently make up 40 percent of frontline forces in Iraq and over 50 percent in Afghanistan. Some states have had 75 percent of their Guard activated; and they, along with the Reserve, are serving in combat roles on foreign shores at the highest rates in U.S. history. Joining them in these changed roles are the members of the Air Force and the Navy who are increasingly serving in ground combat roles. Everyone’s in the Army now.

How are those left behind handling the change?

dixonelks_19Compared to those in the reserves, the Air Force and the Navy have more experience with extended overseas deployments. Families are familiar with loved ones shipping out for months at a time, and they have access to large bases (comparatively) brimming with support options. But fashioning a similar safety net for National Guard and Reserve families may be a more difficult proposition.

Missing is the same support network at the ready to help spread-out families navigate the haze of combat deployment and later the maze of reintegration following. And employers may not appreciate long employee absences. That’s why efforts by Mayors and other local leaders like Jim Burke across the country and in our own communities is so important and necessary. That’s why active participation by veterans groups and organizations like the Dixon Elks Lodge are so vital. It is more than simply good to see these relationships develop between military and local community, it is necessary, too.

America's veterans – both our weekend warriors and our active-duty component have answered the call to duty. It is right and good for us to honor their service today, and every day. Since 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson declared the 11th day of November as Armistice Day, communities of all size and type have come together just as we are today to honor our veterans.

I’m proud to be an American. And I’m proud to be the daughter of a U.S. Army veteran. And I’m humbled and honored to have been able to share my reflections with you today.

dixonelks_30Thank you, dear soldier, sailor, airman and Marine for your love of country, and duty to its citizens. Your long line of sacrifice is not in vein, in fact it is one of the greatest of gifts one man – or woman – can give to another, for everyone’s life is finite and limited.

None of us will get even one more.

And so, the act of volunteering to serve and to perhaps even lay down one’s precious own life for another is, indeed, the truest sign of the human heart. It is also the truest mark of what we call ‘hero’ found in our mortal, fragile world. I salute all of our heroes today who wear or have worn that magical military uniform that is no less wondrous to me today as an adult than it was to me when I was a child peering into my father’s special closet.

This civilian thanks you for donning it, and thanks you for protecting our nation in it. May you and your family be blessed all the days of your lives in return for the sacrifices you have borne by having worn it.


dixonelks_10Thank you to Sharon Kay Dirck, Exalted Ruler, for inviting me to speak, and Trustees Ronda Hicks and Dennis Dempsey, Leading Knight Lloyd Bollman, and Chaplain Laurin Williamson for making me feel welcomed and cared for.

It was an incredible evening.

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