The Corner

Memorial Day as Testimony

Thank you to those who sent in remembrances. It was an honor to meet those you remember well.

Major Vincent G. Heintz, who served with the Army National Guard at Ground Zero in New York and in Afghanistan, shared the remarks he made yesterday at the Rural Cemetery in White Plains, New York, after that city’s parade. In the interest of making every day Memorial Day, as someone suggested here yesterday, I thought you might appreciate the opportunity to read them: 

The Fallen defy the passage of time.

Their service and sacrifice stand watch from stoic bronze and marble monuments that testify to the tragedy of War. 

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In every age, tyrants emerge.

Some enslave their own peoples.

Others scheme to purify humanity itself; to impose faceless monoliths, rooted in the perversion of history, and the corruption of science and religion. 

Consumed by the will to power, they conquer helpless nations.

They toil to crush the individual human spirit.

They murder.

*

When the threat looms too near, Americans suspend our peace-loving ways.

Deals cannot be cut with fanatics.

Words have limits.

*

America, at its best, rebuilds the countries scarred by war.

We stand with them to guard the peace.

*

Over six decades ago, American pilots flew low, in the daylight, into the flak.

They brought Hitler and his craven gang to their knees. 

Three years later, our pilots delivered payloads of food to Berlin. 

Americans stood with Berliners.

Together, they defied Stalin’s threat to enslave yet another European city behind the Iron Curtain. 

*

One decade ago, American and Allied forces struck deep into Afghanistan. 

They drove al Qaeda and the Taliban from their sanctuaries; from remote places; from badlands that the enemy mistakenly thought beyond the reach of our forces; beyond the will of our people. 

Then we put Saddam’s murderous regime to its end. 

Fighting in those places continues to this day. 

Yet U.S. Marines and Airmen in Kabul, and American Soldiers and Sailors in Baghdad, even as they fight, watch over the construction of schools and courthouses; wells, canals and highways. 

They mentor police forces and they build armies that will defend those countries, protect their peoples and obey the law. 

*

As a Nation, we stand together with those peoples.

At the hands of common enemies, they, too, have suffered terror. 

In the end, they want what we want: to live as they see fit; to raise their families free of fear and want; and to have hope for a better life for their children.

*

Yet there are costs. 

The Dead.

The Dead belie the pretense that War need not be waged, and waged decisively; that instead, it may be smartly word-smithed into something clean; that by some hope, decision will come by cruising safely above the shrapnel, the fire and the fog.

*

The Jewish War Veterans, the American Legion, the VFW, the Marine Corps League—they remember the fire.

Some battled flames to rescue shipmates trapped in the hull of the USS Arizona. 

Others fought to save their buddies at Guadalcanal, and on the cliffs of Point du Hoc. 

Some live with the memory of a wingman’s aircraft spiraling toward the Coral Sea, hoping, praying to see a parachute come alive.

*

They remember Benjamin Lewis Saloman, an Army dental officer. 

In June 1944, he brought down nearly 100 enemy troops at Saipan. 

Captain Saloman was grievously wounded.

And he was alone.

And he held his position.

He fought until his ammunition was gone. 

And then, he was gone. 

Through his death, Doctor Saloman purchased life for the wounded in his aid station, who moved to safety under the protection of his fire. 

Fifty-eight years later, the President of the United States posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Benjamin Lewis Saloman, a healer turned warrior.

*

Veterans of a later war – euphemized at the time as a police action – battled Communist forces at the Chosin Reservoir, Pusan and Inchon. 

Others remember MiG fighter jets in the skies over the 17th Parallel; years of torture, darkness and perseverance in Wa Lo Prison; fighting in the streets of Hue; riverine patrols in the Mekong Delta. 

Yet another generation recalls donning chemical suits in the furnace of the Arabian Desert, breaching minefields, assaulting Saddam’s crack Republican Guard.  

All of those survivors lost friends in those places. 

*

Warriors of my generation think about Afghanistan.

I remember friends lost at Chahar Darreh, Pol-e-Chomri and Camp Mike Spann.   

We recall patrols in Kandahar, a place where scarlet poppies – to us a symbol of remembrance – provide the poison that our enemies peddle to sustain their wicked enterprise.  

*

We also think about a highway connecting ancient cities: Basra, Baghdad, Samarra, Mosul. 

*

In Iraq, in 2004, I met a man named Kevin Paul Jessen. 

As boy, Kevin displayed a keen mind. 

Taking apart complicated things came naturally to him. 

So did being an American Soldier.

The Army assigned Sergeant First Class Jessen to be our unit’s bomb disposal expert. 

*

In Iraq, I also served with a man named Michael O’Brien, a fellow member of the New York Army National Guard.

He led many of the patrols that delivered Sergeant Jessen to his work.

Sergeant O’Brien and his men provided over-watch, protecting Sergeant Jessen as he dissected the enemy’s treacherous weapon-of-choice.

 

*

Over months, on lethal ground, under the punishment of the Iraq sun, in sweltering darkness, Kevin and Michael became like brothers. 

Thinking back, it makes perfect sense. 

They were forged of the same mettle.

Kevin Jessen was the bravest man I have known.

Michael O’Brien is a very close second. 

*

After about one year, our infantry company left Iraq.

We returned to garrison at Camp Smith, a few miles from here. 

In 2006, Sergeant Jessen returned to Iraq.

*

One night, in March of that year, I received a telephone call at my home. 

It was Michael O’Brien. 

His voice shook. 

“Sir.  Sir, it’s me.  It’s O’Brien.  Sir, they got him.  They got Kevin.  They got him bad.  He was gathering intel on a device, post-blast.  They had another one waiting.  It’s bad, sir.” 

*

Kevin was 28 years old.

*

Every combat veteran has a Kevin Jessen. 

Years later, we shake our heads.  

They should never have taken the very best.

*

Michael and his family now watch over Kevin’s family. 

No holiday passes without the O’Briens reaching out to Kevin’s wonderful wife, Carrie, and their smart handsome boy, Cameron. 

Kevin is gone from this Earth.

But Carrie and Cameron will never be alone. 

First Sergeant Michael O’Brien won’t allow it.

*

Cameron is 8 years old now. 

Someday, Michael will tell Cameron everything about his father, a humble, easy-going man, a man for whom gallantry was a routine, daily matter.

*

American warriors like Benjamin Saloman, Kevin Jessen and Michael O’Brien live a certain code. 

*

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

*

In the early 1890s, a Canadian named John McCrae entered the service of his country; first as an infantryman, then as an artillery officer. 

Later, he became a college professor. 

He wrote poetry. 

He studied medicine. 

*

In World War I, John McCrae commanded a field hospital on the Western Front.

There, in May 1915, he suffered the death of a former student, a 22-year old lieutenant named Alexis Helmer. 

Dr. McCrae grieved for his friend.

Then he returned to surgery.

For 17 days, Dr. McCrae sutured together Algerians, Australians, Belgians, Brits, Canadians, Frenchmen, Germans, Indians, Irishmen, Moroccans, Scots.   

*

Then, it was over.

John McCrae, a warrior turned healer, emerged from his aid station.

He sat down on the step of a field ambulance. 

There, alone, he wove together some lines of poetry.

 

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.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,   

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,         

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw   

The torch; be yours to hold it high.   

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow         

In Flanders fields.

*

I thank you for the profound privilege of being together with you, here, today; holding high the torch; keeping faith with the Fallen.

*

May the Good Lord shine a light upon them.

Peace be upon their families.

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