By Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, SMC
/ Published May 29, 2007
Los Angeles, Calif. -- Keynote address by Air Force Lt General Michael Hamel, Commander, Air Force Space & Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles AFB in El Segundo, on Memorial Day 2007 at the Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood, California:
Good morning and thank you Captain Sommer for the kind introduction. It is an honor to join you today to speak on behalf of the men and women of our Armed Forces -- thank you all for attending this important day of remembrance.
A special thanks to Mayor Villaraigosa, Councilman Rosendahl, and to all the state, local, and federal officials in attendance today to help us honor the men and women that have fallen in defense of this great land.
Many thanks also to Lt Colonel Paula Haley, Lt Commander Cowell, and the Los Angeles National Cemetery committee for their tireless work in planning this ceremony, and for the invitation to represent the extraordinary men and women of the United States Armed Forces, past and present. I am very honored and humbled to be here today to pay tribute to our fallen comrades.
It is both fitting and proper that we, as a Nation, periodically pause to remember our fellow citizens who have dedicated their lives to the service of their country and to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our liberty and security. The act of honoring those who have given their lives in war traces back to antiquity. The Athenian general, Pericles, offered a personal tribute to those lost in the epic Peloponnesian War, saying:
"not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men".
Cemeteries, monuments, and memorials are important physical reminders of past heroes and fallen comrades, but our true obligation should be to carry with us the knowledge and appreciation of the human sacrifice given for our benefit.
Memorial Day was established in this country for that very reason. In 1868, Major General John Logan declared that Decoration Day be observed every year as a time for the Nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers, in solemn remembrance of their sacrifice. On that very first Memorial Day, a scant three years after the end of the Civil War, a war that threatened to destroy our young Republic, a newly united Nation paused to honor the fallen warriors from both sides of the bitter conflict. On the hallowed ground of Arlington and across the Nation, north to south, children set out flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers, and in doing so, our young Nation paused to heal and reunite.
Through the decades, some have lost sight of the essential purpose of Memorial Day. For many it is a 3-day weekend, filled with family gatherings, barbeques, and the start of the summer season. Those here today have gathered in a spirit of remembrance and gratitude for the sacrifices paid by so many in order to provide the security and freedom that we all enjoy in this great Nation. It is a day to remind ourselves that "freedom is not free", rather it is paid in full by the blood of patriots.
But who are these men and women who have answered the call to secure our collective future time and time again? What is it in the American spirit that spans generations, reaches across decades, and animates average citizens to perform extraordinary, unselfish acts of bravery and sacrifice? One of the unique, fundamental and defining characters of the American experience has been the citizen-soldier. Rooted in the very soul of our Nation, the tradition of the citizen-soldier springs from the love of liberty, respect for human dignity and a spirit of self-determination that birthed this country some 231 years ago. It motivated colonial farmers and merchants to take up arms and to fight for their independence against the most formidable military force in the world. Since that revolutionary beginning, the American citizen-soldier has fought whenever called to defend the Nation's ideals and way of life -- not as mercenaries or driven by a dictator's coercion, but rather as dedicated citizens with a love for and belief in the society they willingly defend. They believe that what is worth loving is worth defending. They are connected through time with a common thread, a commitment to an ideal greater than themselves - a democracy "of the people, by the people, and for the people," protected by the very best from among the people.
Here today, we pause to remember these noble men and women - more than 650,000 American lives lost in combat - lives cut short to safeguard our National inheritance.
The images are clear. We can see in our mind's eye a simple farmer standing strong on a bridge in Concord, straining to throw off the oppressive yoke of a distant king. We remember the tragedy of a nation split by Civil War, as an adolescent Nation was ripped apart by internal strife -- brother fighting brother across our war-torn nation. Places like Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg claimed the lives of over 200,000 of this Nation's sons. Once the battles ended, a stronger Nation emerged from the aftermath, the Nation's purpose and principles clarified in the cauldron of conflict.
We remember brave Americans crossing the Atlantic to aid our World War I allies, threatened by the rapid advance of the Central powers. Here in the "War to End All Wars", the mettle of the American fighting man was first displayed overseas.
In the middle of the last Century, the world was consumed by a global struggle between forces of oppression and evil and those that valued freedom and human worth. Millions of the "Greatest Generation" answered their nation's call on a scale never before imagined. Tempered by the hardship of the Great Depression, this generation sacrificed over a quarter of a million of its young citizens to engage and defeat the evil of fascism across the globe, and free people in distant lands. From the beaches and skies over Normandy, France, to the treacherous islands of the South Pacific, to naval battles around the world, that generation defended this great nation and its allies with honor. They then returned to their beloved homes -- to build a nation the likes of which the world has never seen - a beacon of freedom, hope and generosity.
No sooner were World War II adversaries defeated, when a new threat emerged. Across nearly half a century, the specter of Communism threatened to overtake the world. The advent of the nuclear age posed a new threat to our security, indeed to our very existence. This Cold War was anything but cold to the nearly 100,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen lost in the Korean and Vietnam Wars of that era as they fought to 'contain' the Soviet Union. We also experienced dark days when many in our nation lost respect for those who would serve in uniform and fight our nation's wars. We pray that our Nation and our citizens have learned they must never turn their backs on those who selflessly serve and risk their lives for us.
Since the end of the Cold War, we have seen extraordinary changes across the globe, presenting new challenges for our nation and security. Many proclaimed a new world order, the nation "cashed in a peace dividend" and American's saw few threats as the world's only superpower. But those in the profession of arms know that hostilities and aggression are never far over the horizon, and constant vigilance is required for the defense of a Nation. Conflict and armed combat continued through Desert Shield/Desert Storm, brutal war erupted in the Balkans and countless crises brewed, reminding the nation we live in a dangerous world.
As we entered a new century, our nation experienced a new and deadly threat to our people inside our own borders. The attacks of September 11, 2001, forever shattered our sense of security within our homeland that had endured since our founding days. The American public collectively entered a new world of uncertainty facing a new, deadly, elusive and determined enemy. Once again, America's citizen-soldiers have volunteered to enter the breach in this Global War on Terror. Through their unselfish service, our military men and women are bringing hope to the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, who are war-weary and yearn for peace and freedom. They are succeeding in the most difficult of circumstances - ensuring our security by engaging the enemy in a distant land, while assisting the residents of those lands to stand up and govern themselves, free of dictators and extremists. In doing so, they honor the memory of all those in other times and other conflicts that have made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom.
Our citizen-soldiers of today are answering the call and taking their place in a long, proud line of protectors and defenders of this Nation. They serve and die for us across the globe:
· From the Soldier traversing the rugged mountains of Afghanistan - a world away from all that is familiar, but resolved to bring to justice those that seek our destruction
· To the Marine patrolling the deadly streets of Baghdad - protecting innocent women and children as they search out terrorists and establish local security
· To the Sailor - risking his life on, over, and below the oceans across the globe, projecting power and bringing relief wherever they sail
· To the Airman - flying through hostile skies and controlling the frontiers of air and space to ensure no threat awaits our warriors and allies worldwide
· To the Coast Guardsman - standing as a vigilant line of defense on our Nation's coasts
This integrated force of active duty, reservists, and National Guardsmen is the most capable military ever assembled in the history of mankind -- not due so much to their technological capabilities, but more so by the content of their character. These citizen-soldiers are few in number, but possess sharply educated minds, spirits of sacrifice, and a common culture of honor and integrity.
The wartime sacrifices of these heroes are felt acutely by our local communities. California is home to over 295,000 uniformed and civilian Department of Defense personnel on more than 30 major military installations. These dedicated men and women provide a sizeable portion of our Nation's deployed forces to the Global War on Terror and perform such diverse missions as training Soldiers and Marines in desert and urban combat, providing worldwide air mobility and global projection of sea power, developing and launching satellites that support our joint warriors. Within the last month, over 25,000 Marines stationed in Southern California returned from duty in western Iraq, while 8000 still serve in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa. There may well be family members of those serving that are here today and indeed may have lost their loved ones. To each of you, I offer our nation's deepest thanks and condolences - our nation is equally indebted to your sacrifices.
Our country has been truly blessed by those that have, through the ages, stepped forward to say, "Send me". Their character reminds us what it means to be an American. Gen George Marshall noted early in WWII when asked if the US had a secret weapon to win the war, he said "Yes ... the best darn kids in the world". In recent times, some have wondered whether the modern American society could produce men and women of dedication and sacrifice as in the Greatest Generation. Indeed, President John F. Kennedy, in a 1962 commencement address at the United States Military Academy at West Point, said:
"When there is a visible enemy to fight in open combat, many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle, with no immediate, visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed"
What was true then, is still true today - no generation in America has escaped the call to service. Like their grandfathers and great-grandfathers of the "Greatest Generation" before them, this "Latest Generation" has answered our Nation's call with extraordinary bravery and resolute purpose. We gather here today to remember sacrifices, to honor their families, to unite our Nation, to remind us all that freedom isn't free, and to renew our resolve to pass along their stories to inspire the next generation. We owe them nothing less than a complete debt of gratitude we will never be able to repay. I would close with a quote from President Benjamin Harrison who said quite appropriately:
"I have never been able to think of the day as one of mourning; I have never quite been able to feel that half-masted flags were appropriate on Decoration Day. I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak, because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it. We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what they did."
I thank you all for taking time today to honor our fallen citizen-soldiers, as well as those who have served and are serving across the globe. This band of dedicated warriors takes pride in what they do. They serve because they believe in what they do and know they have the support of the American public. Let us never let them down. May God continue to bless this great Nation and those who defend it.