Remarks for Veterans Day 2015
Last winter I had the pleasure of viewing an exhibit entitled, “The American Soldier”. The exhibit was shown at the Thrasher-Horne Gallery and displayed photographs of Americans at war from the Civil War through Afghanistan. The large collection of images ranged from the mundane to the surreal.
We all have our own concept of the American Soldier. When you walk into an exhibit such as this you have a certain set of expectations of what you will see. Like all good art, these images challenged your expectations and invited you to see something new in the familiar.
Photographs are interesting in that they capture a brief instant of time. As you study them you can see things that you would typically miss during the commotion of activity. Each told a story. Some of these images have stayed with me so I would like to share a few of those stories with you today.
The first photograph was taken on D-Day. It was taken from the back of a landing craft looking toward shore. It is in black and white, which adds a stark quality to the scene. The bow of the craft is pointed toward shore and the ramp is down, about two dozen troops have just disembarked. They are all loaded down with packs and rifles, making their way toward the beachthrough waist-deep water. None of their faces are visible as they make their way toward the shore. You have to wonder if any of them feel the cold of the ocean water. Looking beyond the men you can see a broad, flat beach. You can see other men already on the beach trying to make their way to higher ground. With a black and white photograph there are invariably shades of grey. The light sea foam gives way to the darker beach sand. Beyond the beach, land blends together with smoke and clouds. A faint line marks the top of a high bluff. The enemy is very well-positioned on this high ground. To travel through waist-deep water, across a broad, flat, sandy beach and scale this bluff, all while under heavy fire, borders on the unimaginable but this is their mission. We don’t know what happens to these men. It is difficult to look at this scene and not sense the anxiety and dread of that Tuesday morning as each soldier makes his way toward a very uncertain future but these men are taking the first steps toward the liberation of a continent. It is a magnificent moment in time.
The second photograph was taken during the Viet Nam War. A soldier is seated on the bank of a canal with his legs in knee-deep water. He is wearing his pack and helmet and is holding a grenade launcher. He is using the banks of the canal as cover as he scans the area for a Viet Cong sniper. In the canal, huddled near this soldier’s left leg is a woman. She is lying in the water with only her head and shoulders exposed. In her arms is a young child. Beyond her, also in the water, an older child holds a younger child. Seeing small children in this setting is unsettling. Two of the children are staring intently at the soldier. The soldier looks young – maybe late teens or early twenties. He looks tired. Although we don’t know what this young man is thinking we see that the lives of at least four defenseless people depend on him. At this moment he stands between them and an unseen enemy.
The next photograph was taken in Kabul, Afghanistan during a ceremony commemorating the fifth anniversary of 9/11. It shows a Staff Sergeant at attention holding a salute. Her uniform, the angle of her right arm and the rigid posture with eyes forward all display a military manner. Everything about the sergeant speaks to her professionalism, everything that is except the tear running down her left cheek. That one tear betrays the depth of emotion inside her on that day. It could not be contained. Her country, her people and her ideals had been attacked and the memory of that day still hurt.
The last photograph I would like to share with you was taken during the Iraq War. It shows an exhausted soldier who has just completed 300-plus miles of speed and maneuver warfare. He is seated in a drab, dusty village wearing full battle gear. In his left hand he is holding an envelope and in his right hand he is holding a letter from home. With his eyes closed, he has taken the letter and placed it against his nose. Maybe his wife had placed her perfume on the letter and he was savoring the fragrance. Maybe he simply wanted to be closer to something she had touched. Either way, while he is physically in the Iraqi desert, in his mind and heart he is thousands of miles away at home with his wife and family for a few brief seconds. The pain of separation is real and it is often at odds with Duty, Honor, Country. Those days apart you just don’t get back. They have to be invested well. They have to count for something.
So, who is the “American Soldier”? There is no short answer. American soldiers are as varied as the American people. By virtue of their service, they find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. It is their response to those circumstances that earns our respect and admiration. They are courageous, vigilant and a symbol of hope. They fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. They are men and women who care deeply about their beliefs, their families and our nation. People who understand discipline, responsibility and sacrifice. Men and women that are willing to accept war rather than let our nation and all that it stands for perish.
To our veterans, this is your day. We are grateful for your service and we appreciate the opportunity to share our gratitude with you.
Happy Veterans Day!