Santa Fe Events
Veterans’ Day Address
November 11, 2011
Santa Fe President Michael Peters
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, fellow veterans. It is a great honor for me to be among my brothers and sisters who have served in our armed forces and to speak with you this morning.
This day was set aside to remember and honor those who have served our country in the military. The date coincides with the end of the First World War, optimistically called “the war to end all wars”, when the guns fell silent on the Western Front at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918.
World War I inspired some of the most thoughtful and compelling literature about war and the soldiers who fought, most written by veterans themselves. For example the poem by a Canadian military doctor, In Flanders Fields:
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow Between the crosses row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.
This poem so touched the hearts of those who served and their countrymen that throughout Great Britain and her former colonies, a red poppy is worn each year on November 11th in remembrance and honor of those who serve.
But the tradition of honoring veterans began long before the modern age. In ancient Athens the government leader was required by law to publicly remember and praise those who sacrificed for their city and those they left behind. In his oration on this occasion the Athenian general Pericles called on his fellow citizens to “Make them [the veterans] your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness. . .To a man of spirit, cowardice and disaster, coming together, are far more bitter than death striking him unperceived at a time when he is full of courage and animated by the general hope.”
In our country there is perhaps no better testimony to those who served than Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In his brief remarks recalling the sacrifices of those who had fought in that horrific battle of the Civil War, Lincoln exhorted his countrymen to rally to a cause greater than themselves; he said “we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Lincoln continued, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The words of Abraham Lincoln, 148 years ago almost to the day, resonate still.
What is common among these examples is the shared commitment and sacrifice of those who serve -- for their country and for their fellow soldiers. However, each generation that serves returns to a country that is different from the one they left, partly because the country has changed but also because through their experiences, the veteran has changed. With us today are veterans of World War II including Bataan, as well as veterans of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
What stands out about the experience of the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is how unique their service was. Not because of the nature of the conflicts, although that is certainly true. But, because of how few of their fellow citizens served with them.
In our past conflicts the burden was shared more broadly throughout the society, directly through the draft, but also with sacrifices at home -- the shared sacrifice and commitment Lincoln spoke of at Gettysburg. Today, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being born not by the country as a whole, but by individuals, by the servicemen and women and their families, both during the conflict and after they return home.
But while this experience is perhaps unique for U.S. veterans, it is not unique historically, particularly for volunteer armies. This is seen clearly in a stanza by the British poet and veteran Rudyard Kipling about the civilian attitude toward British soldiers called “Tommies”.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!" But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot; An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please; An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!
I imagine our Iraq and Afghanistan vets may feel some connection with these sentiments.
I think we would agree that we, as with most veterans returning home, have benefited by our service, and we should do everything in our power to ease the transitions for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Because veterans continue to make contributions, perhaps even greater contributions, in their civilian lives -- to their families, to their communities and to their country.
Some veterans, however, are not so fortunate. They carry the scars of their service with them, some for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, it also seems that our society finds it difficult to properly acknowledge and pay the price for the sacrifices others have made for them. Bumper stickers supporting the troops are fine, but they aren’t enough.
Therefore, it falls once again to us, the veterans and those who stand with us, to do what we can for our comrades, who have fallen or been grievously wounded in body or spirit during their service, and for their families. We must ensure that, as Lincoln implored, they have not sacrificed in vain. We should do this because they have earned it and we, more than any others, can appreciate what they have done. But, most importantly because it is right. Therefore, I urge you seek ways to help your fellow veterans. For example, you might be interested in joining me and others who are working to fight homelessness among veterans. If you are interested in helping, please contact Hank Hughes at the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.
I share your pride in having had the privilege to serve our country and our fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. And I share your appreciation for those who are doing their duty at this moment at home and abroad. As I am sure as it was for you, it was an honor for me to stand alongside some of the finest men and women this country has produced. I thank you again for your service and especially for those of you who have served most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, thank you for your contribution at home, after you have taken off the uniform, here in New Mexico.
God bless you and your families and our men and women serving today and God bless the United States of America. Thank you.