Memorial Day, 2012
Mayor Smith, Commander Sparwasser, Commander May, fellow veterans, and friends. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today. It is a privilege and an honor.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Lieutenant Colonel Paul Schimpf and I went to school here in Waterloo. My dad is a member of the Waterloo VFW and my mother taught math in the junior high schools across the street. I grew up out by Foster Pond and prior to this morning, the last time I spoke with Commander Sparwasser—you know, I’m just going to have to say Butch—here was when I was about 12 years old.
Now when that conversation occurred, a younger—and much more spry—version of Butch was driving a snowmobile and I was riding behind him. Now the house we lived in was situated on some acreage and the land—thanks to the sinkholes, our unique Southern Illinois terrain feature—was rolling. So Butch and I were zooming up and down the hills.
Well, I also had black and white dog who liked to chase things. Well you can imagine where this story is going.
Flying towards the hilltop from one side are Butch and I on the snowmobile. Rocketing up the hill from the other side is the dog. Arriving at the crest of the hill at the exact same time …
Well, I’m still here obviously. And the dog lived to a ripe old age of 15. Somehow—to this day I have no idea how he did it—Butch swerved and avoided the dog. That was one of the first times that my life flashed before my eyes.
And about seven years ago when my dad joined the VFW, he told me that Butch was a Marine. And an explanation came together in my brain. It finally made sense; Butch must have been a Marine fighter pilot.
Well, talking with Butch this morning, I found out that he was not a Marine fighter pilot. I’m not sure I can handle the letdown.
That snow mobile ride with Butch seems a lifetime ago. Almost 23 years have passed since I left Waterloo to go on active duty in our armed forces. During those 23 years, I’ve gotten to do some incredible things and had some remarkable experiences.
One day, however, is the most noteworthy in my military career.
I apologize for channeling Charles Dickens, but August 4, 2011, for me, was both “the best of times and the worst of times.” It was simultaneously both the greatest day and the worst day of my Marine Corps career.
On August 4th 2011, I represented the Commandant of the Marine Corps at the dignified transfer of Staff Sergeant Leon Lucas at Dover Air Force Base. For those of you who don’t know, the bodies of our fallen are met by delegations from their respective service when they are returned home to the States. A detail of Marines unload the body from the jet and move it to a hearse for transportation to the base mortuary.
Staff Sergeant Leon Lucas died fighting for us in Afghanistan. When he came home that day last August, his father and mother were waiting there at Dover to meet him.
His wife, a former Marine herself, was waiting to meet him.
His three kids, a 5 year old, a 3 year old, and his unborn child still inside his mother were all waiting to meet him.
What I’d like to spend a few minutes talking with you about this morning is how should we honor the sacrifice of Staff Sergeant Leon Lucas and our other fallen veterans.
How should we honor the over 1 million American veterans who, since the founding of our nation, have died for our country?
You all probably know better than me that Memorial Day—in one form or another—has been around since shortly after the Civil War. The original date was chosen because no American battle had occurred on that day, making it suitable for honoring the fallen from all battles and wars. Right now it is written into federal law that Memorial Day occurs on the last Monday in May.
The national VFW would like to change the date of Memorial Day, so that it is not so closely tied to the traditional start of summer, but I’m content with where it currently falls. Maybe it was planned; maybe it is just a coincidence; but, regardless, is it serendipitous that Memorial Day falls in close proximity to high school and college commencement exercises.
The commencement or graduation ceremony represents the bestowal of recognition on a graduate that they have completed a milestone and are ready to serve. You have achieved this honor—no go forth and do bigger and better things.
Memorial Day provides an example for our younger Americans of how to serve.
But in order to make that connection, the focus of Memorial Day can’t be about death—it also has to be about life.
When we focus only on the death aspect of Memorial Day, we miss the point. Anyone can die—we all will. What is worthy of honor is how our fallen lived their lives and the choice they made.
Memorial Day shouldn’t be about remembering the deaths of our fallen comrades. It should be about remembering their lives; remembering that America produced men and women who treasured our families, our country, and our freedom that they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
America right now is a nervous country. If you believe the polls, over 70% of us think that our country is on the wrong track. We are frustrated with our economy and with a political system that seems broken. Our entertainment industry serves up a constant menu of depravity and distraction. Five months from now we will have an election that will leave half the country bitter and despondent.
Yet I say to you this morning: Memorial Day is the antidote to this pessimism because it provides a necessary dose of perspective. And that perspective is this:
Despite all of our problems, American men and women will still take up arms and say: my friends, my family, and my country are worth dying for.
How can you not be optimistic about America when every day, members of a new generation of veterans make that very choice—that America, with all its flaws, is still worth suffering and dying for.
So back to the question I posed earlier, how should we honor our fallen?
There are many appropriate ways to honor our fallen—prayer; marching in a parade, cleaning cemeteries, enjoying the freedoms that veterans fought to give us—I’m not going to say that one way is better than another.
But I am going to say this: you cannot truly honor someone’s sacrifice unless you understand the reason for that sacrifice.
I want to say that again and rephrase it slightly. If we, as a nation, want to truly honor the sacrifice of our fallen, we must first understand why they laid down their life.
On this point, we, who remain behind, still have some work to do, because I don’t think all of America truly understands why its sons and daughters join the military.
We do a good job or even a great job of thanking our veterans for their service. We are recognized at campaign rallies; probably half the businesses in the country give military discounts; we have periodic free admissions to Sea World.
But there is a fine line between honoring and patronizing. And thanking us, because you feel sorry for us is patronizing.
Too many Americans think that the military service is a last resort. People join the military to get an education. Or to provide structure for their life. Or because they couldn’t find work anywhere else. Or they’ve run out of options.
Unfortunately, there are many people in this country who think of our fallen as victims.
And that belief insults the memory of their sacrifice.
Instead of feeling pity for our fallen and their families, we should be humbled and awed that they thought we, as people and nation, are worthy of their sacrifice.
I want to end this speech by coming back to SSgt Lucas and his family.
On that day at Dover, I offered the condolences of the Commandant of the Marine Corps to them and discussed how proud they should be of his accomplishments as a Staff Sergeant.
Now, instead of small talk with their families, I submit to you that we owe SSgt Lucas and all of our fallen two things. And neither of these is a one-day-year proposition.
First, we owe it to our fallen to understand and respect why they made their sacrifice—why they gave the last full measure. It wasn’t for themselves—it was a choice they made on behalf of their families and their nation.
Second, we must re-dedicate ourselves, as individuals, families, and a nation, to the goal of being worthy of their sacrifice.
While our words and deeds can never match the sacrifice they made, we, as individuals and a nation, can at least work to validate their belief that our freedom, our families, and our country are something worth dying for.
Thank you and God Bless the United States of America.