Speech to Veterans Graduating PCC on Memorial Day Weekend

For all of us Purple Heart recipients

I took this photo in Iowa on my book tour for The Wax Bullet War

Memorial Day 2016

 

Every community in our country was affected by the Civil War; so much so that a year after the day the war ended many towns closed all their shops so people could go place flags and flowers on the graves of the loved ones they lost in battle. Think about how that translates to modern times. Can you think of a day in your lifetime that shut our country down a year after the event occurred? 9/11 would be most people’s answer where almost 3,000 people were killed in one day in a country with a population of 285 million. The Civil War lasted four years and we lost 600,000 people out of a population of only 40 million.

This unofficial holiday would happen in May for years after the Civil War until General John Logan decided to organize an effort and create what they called Decoration Day. Eventually, before 1900, Decoration Day changed to Memorial Day, but since the South saw it as a celebration of a Union victory, not everyone celebrated on the same day. It wasn’t until after WWI, where the United States lost 130,000 service men and women, did we really unite as a country to give the fourth Monday in May its true meaning.

In WWII we lost 419,000 service men and women. In fact, the world lost 3% of its population in that war. In the Korean War we lost about 54,000 of our best. In Vietnam we lost 59,000, and in the current Iraq and Afghanistan Wars we’ve lost 6,882 so far.

Personally, I lost a soldier in my squad during a coordinated and violent ambush. He was two feet behind me when he was killed. His name was Eric Scott McKinley, and he was a dear friend. We lost too many from my company: Eric, Kenny Leisten, Dave Weisenburg, Ben Isenberg, Earl Werner and Taylor Marks. Earl and Taylor were killed on a different tour, but all of these losses really affected me on a level most people can’t understand. I came back from three deployments a different person, so different that I didn’t know who I was, how I was supposed to fit into the world, or even how to really interact with society. I wrote my book, The Wax Bullet War, about the struggle in my life, a struggle too many veterans share and can relate to.

Memorial Day is a time to mourn and remember those we’ve lost, and I believe that can mean mourning and remembering the pieces of ourselves that we will never get back, that we lost. I also believe that this day reminds us veterans who were fortunate enough to come home, that our service hasn’t ended. We made a promise when we raised our hands. We made a promise to our families, our communities, our country, and our gods. And the sacrifice of our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters holds us to that promise. I don’t mean oath of enlistment. The promise we made was to find our true potential, to be leaders, to bring out the best in those around us, to cover down on each other, and to make wherever we are a better place for us being there. 

Too many people equate veteran with someone who suffers from PTSD. We’ve started to see it in pop culture: TV, movies, even music videos. I helped put together and promote the Veteran/Lottery Fund bill. I worked with state representatives Julie Parrish and Paul Evans. When it was time to testify before the committee that would say yes or no to the bill, we had a room full of veterans from all wars, all ages, but it wasn’t our testimony that convinced the committee to pass the bill. In fact, they didn’t even let us testify. It came down to money, as most of our laws do nowadays. The presenter showed that with an investment of one dollar of the lottery funds we had the potential to get back twenty dollars of federal money. The plan was to hire more Veteran Service Officers with the lottery funds so they could help more veterans get disability percentages from the VA (federal money)  and that money would be spent in Oregon where our veterans live. While I was happy the bill passed and the money would go to veterans’ issues, I was almost insulted that our government sees veterans, especially us combat veterans, as soul-broke heroes who have lost the potential to ever be whole again. In my opinion, they are betting on how messed up we are rather than how we can positively change the communities we live in. What if they invested in our ideas, in our talents, in our abilities rather than investing in our diseases or injuries?

I don’t blame them and I don’t think our leaders are bad people, but somehow we’ve come to a point in our history where we see our veterans as a negative rather than a positive. I’m not saying we need to do away with the disability rating. I understand how many people are using that to live. What I’m saying is we should set aside some of those funds and invest in what our veterans can do.

My point is that we need to honor the sacrifice of those we’ve lost as well as their families. But we also need to celebrate our lives. We need to remember our potential. Keep that promise. Be an inspiration to those who need it. Do great things in your community. Do great things in your life. Do things you didn’t know you were capable of. Show the people around you that we’re more than soul-broke heroes. Get them to believe it and in that way you can make someone who doesn’t think they can go one more day, believe it too. Live so the victories in your life are shared by those who aren’t with us anymore. So honor the millions of servicemen and servicewomen who died before you, but honor yourself as well. Make your life a monument that will inspire others.

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