“What is a Veteran? Why Should it Matter to You?” A High School Veterans Day Speech
by LTC Cris Simon
Earlier this year, I met up with my old high school athletics director when I went to my 25th reunion. “Coach” mentioned to me that he thought that the students would benefit from getting a perspective on the world outside their campus. I told him that it would be a pleasure, just to tell me when.
They invited me to go back to my High School to speak the day before Veterans Day. Seemed like a perfect opportunity, I thought, because we all want to believe that what we do has a message that resonates with the people we do it for.
What follows is the body of my speech.
Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you.
Thank you Coach XXXXX, thank you especially to the staff and faculty of XXXXXXXXX. Thank you to my Mother and Father, who are present here today. And thank you all for your time. Time, after all, is the most precious commodity we have.
Believe it or not, long ages ago, I was a student here, from my Freshman to Senior year. And like you, I was given many opportunities to sit and listen to a varied cohort of speakers. Some were excellent, and inspiring. Others were… less so. I hope to be the former, not the latter. Speaking plainly, I like the public speaking school of thought that says “be brief, be brilliant, and be gone.” But in the words of the preeminent 20th century philosopher and artist Meatloaf, “two out of three ain’t bad”.
So why am I standing here with you today? I jumped at the chance to come here. Because I am sure that you all can’t get enough of adults telling you what you should do with your lives, right? But I came here to speak about Veteran’s Day, and what it means to me. As a veteran of two wars, I have strong feelings in this matter. And as an alumnus of this outstanding school, I feel an obligation to share them with you.
What is a Veteran? More specifically, should it matter to you? These three things sum it up best:
Answering the call of Service to the Nation.
Character formed by experiences, and how we respond to them, and
Dedication to a code of conduct, and standing for something greater than yourself.
Let’s talk about the Star-Spangled Banner.
Take a knee if you must.
The words of our National anthem were eloquently put to paper by Francis Scott Key after the Battle of Baltimore, during the War of 1812. For those of you who are a little fuzzy on history, that was the British on offense, and the Americans on defense. The American forces repulsed sea and land invasions off the busy port city of Baltimore, Maryland, and killed the commander of the invading British forces. Though the Americans retreated, the battle was a successful delaying action that inflicted heavy casualties on the British, halted their advance and allowed the defenders at Baltimore to properly prepare for an attack. The Soldiers who mounted the resistance of Fort McHenry during bombardment by the Royal Navy inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry”, which would later be set to music and become our national anthem.
Now, records show that the Soldiers defending the Fort were hammered with a barrage of somewhere north of 1,800 cannonballs –some of which apparently were designed to burst in air – as well as the now infamous red-glaring rockets which were fired from the HMS Erebus. Quick back of the hand math says that means the American defenders were on the receiving end of 3-4 cannonballs a minute ALL NIGHT LONG. Let’s do this; every 15 seconds for a minute, I will point to you. When I point to you, I want you to say “boom.” Let’s try it – I point to you, you say boom. Simple enough. Ready? Good. [NOTE: It took a little while to get going… I said “listen guys, we’re talking cannonballs, not snowballs!”] Got it. That’s the first one. Get ready for the next one. And… Ok… you get the idea. Now imagine it’s not just loud classmates sitting next to you, but high explosives and burning metal designed to eviscerate men, or grind them into pulp. I can assure you that just being near the receiving end of a rocket is not a pleasant experience.
The British Commander, Rear Admiral Cockburn, had been given clear orders “You are hereby required and directed to “destroy and lay waste such towns and districts as you may find assailable.”
So this begs the question, what kind of person would put themselves in this kind of harm’s way?
The defenders at Fort McHenry were the only real defense left standing between the British invasion and the complete “laying waste” of their homes and families in Baltimore.
The Soldiers who defended Fort McHenry, some of whom were your age, volunteered to serve their Nation. This placed them in harm’s way. But in doing so, they knew that they were defending their homes, their loved ones, and the freedom of the young United States of America. But I would argue that this character is part of our national DNA. That we believe in the value of fighting for what we believe in, and sacrificing if necessary to achieve it. It cannot be pure coincidence that our National anthem describes a fight. It was not one person who defended Ft. McHenry, although they were led by MAJ Armistead, but it was the Soldiers who came together to defend their homeland, to serve, voluntarily putting themselves in harm’s way.
Which brings me to the next point of reference. Being a Soldier means dedicating yourself to Selfless Service.
Selfless Service. A synonym for joining the Armed Forces is “being in the Service,” short for being in the Service of the United States of America. As you may or may not be aware, we no longer have a draft. One has to volunteer to serve. That means that every member of the US military is a volunteer. There are good aspects to this; the all-volunteer force is more professional in every respect than the one it replaced. There are also, arguably bad aspects to this; people are increasingly isolated from the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coasties who do the government’s bidding. It takes a special kind of volunteer to serve in the military. It is not a job, where you can leave at the end of the day and say “phew, glad that’s over!” It is a profession, which takes dedication. It is a calling.
In a similar vein, in the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 6, the prophet tells the story of when he is called to serve. Let’s put it slightly into context. Isaiah was a regular fellow, according to some. And then, he was just walking along one day in the year that King Uzziah died.
“ I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Isaiah really had no idea what he was getting into, but he went anyway. He knew that he was called to do something greater than himself. I harbor no illusions of prophecy, but every Veteran, for their own reasons and in their own way, hears a call and answers it.
Which leads me to my second point.
Your character will be formed by how you face challenges.
When I graduated from XXXX, I knew where I was going. I was going to the University of Virginia! After that, the details were a little fuzzy. I had some vague ideas about psychology, or maybe some sort of journalism. But if you think for a second that I was the kid who everyone had pegged as a future Soldier, well, I have to tell you, I wasn’t that guy. Coach XXXX will attest to my athletic prowess – or lack thereof. I sometimes had long hair, down to my shoulders, on occasion, and enjoyed tip-toeing the line between fun and trouble. Miraculously, I always ended up on the side of fun. My best friend then – (who still is, to this day, by the way,) had a father who had served in the Army in Vietnam. But the military? Not a chance. Not for THIS guy.
But after two semesters at Mr. Jefferson’s Academical Village, and perhaps a record for the lowest possible GPA, I asked myself the question… what am I doing with my life? The quote from John F. Kennedy is carved into Cabell Hall, within walking distance from here, actually… “you are here to enrich the World, and impoverish yourself if you lose the lesson.”
In the movies, this is what you would call the big plot twist. I knew I wanted to do SOMETHING with my life. I wanted to make the World a better place. I wanted to do something I believed in. I wanted to be part of something greater than myself. I felt the calling.
I drove down to the United States Marine Corps recruiter. He asked me how many pull ups I could do. Not quite the challenge I was looking for. So my time with Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children was short. (By the way, MARINE actually means Muscles Are Required Intelligence Not Essential.) I have relatives who joint the Marines, so I feel comfortable making that joke. That’s your little dose of inter-service rivalry for the day.
But then I went the Army recruiter. I told him that I wanted to jump out of airplanes and blow things up. He smiled and handed me a contract.
A few years later, as a brand new 2nd Lieutenant, I was given the responsibility of leading a platoon of 4 M1A1 tanks, and the 14 Men who crewed them. Not quite the same as being the shift manager at Denny’s, right? We spent the better part of each day together for years, eating, sleeping, doing maintenance, joking around, doing maintenance, going to the National Training Center, doing maintenance, blowing things up, and then redeploying and doing maintenance.
Only a few years later as a Captain, my first Company Command, I ended up in charge of 453 men and women, and was signed for my own installation in the Republic of Korea in the 2nd Infantry Division. I was making decisions that affected the lives of hundreds of men and women, as well as their families, within artillery range of the Demilitarized Zone. The point here is not chest-pounding bravado, but that the Army provided me with “opportunities to excel” which are pretty much unheard of in other professional arenas. And every few years, a new challenge came along.
As a Major, I served as a Logistics Officer with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). I had the privilege of deploying with the Nightstalkers to Afghanistan, in support of OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM. I can tell you that Afghanistan was cold.
Two years later, I was in Command again, supporting the 5th Special Forces Group with the Group Service Support Company (GSSC). I deployed twice to Iraq with them, as part of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, part of OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM. I am proud to say that I brought every single Soldier under my Command back alive.
One of the favorite quotes from my time with the Nightstalkers comes from the Book of Job, 23 :10. You’ll see it on T-Shirts all over the compound. “But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.”
The quote means something special to me, because in the Army they talk about the “crucible of leadership”. A crucible is a container that can withstand very high temperatures and is used to melt and purify metal and glass.
When you try gold in a crucible, the greater the heat, the purer the gold. The application of fire serves to separate every particle of impurity or alloy, and leaves only the pure metal. So it is with the challenges you will face in life.
You should not dread the trials and challenges of life. They will not destroy you! You will be the more valuable for your trials, as gold is for the application of heat. There is no danger of breaking down a truly motivated person. You can’t burn fire with flames. All you need is to have faith.
My years in the Army have been an adventure, with a lot of unexpected twists and turns. I have seen things that have made me say “I can’t believe that they pay me to do this!” Jumping out of airplanes in the middle of the night with a full combat load. That is awesome. Getting shot at; not as awesome. I was there for my son’s birth. But I missed my son’s first three birthdays, afterwards. Pride, great sadness, mind-numbing boredom, intense joy, absolute relief, and occasionally, complete exhaustion, the full range of human emotion and memories to last a lifetime. And along the way, I have grown and changed, taking into myself the Army’s moral and ethical values. It has been my crucible.
Which brings me to my final point. A summation, if you will.
Why have I served, and why do I continue to serve? Why have and who do Veterans place themselves in harm’s way?
I have been given the greatest gift that I believe a man can give to himself; I wake up in the morning (sometimes earlier than I would like), and I get to look in the mirror and respect the man that I see. Because I do something I believe in.
It is not because I get to go to wars. No. A veteran is someone who has gone to war because his Nation tells him or her to. “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” – Douglas MacArthur
Why have Soldiers gone to Vietnam? Desert Storm? Operation ENDURING FREEDOM? Iraqi Freedom? Because their Nation has ordered them to go. It is ingrained in every service member that we must follow orders, as long as they are legally, ethically, or morally correct. We are likewise ordered to NOT follow any orders that do not meet those criteria.
We are all races, creeds, colors and faiths. Racism, sexism, homophobia and hate speech are all punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Also, we are apolitical. You may have noticed that there was recently an election. I do not serve one particular party or affiliation. When an officer is commissioned or promoted, they raise their right hand and swear an oath. They solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same.
And what does the Constitution say? “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” THAT is what we are sworn to uphold and defend.
You may be surprised to know that there are countries in this World who do not feel the same way. Some countries and some ideologies think that it’s perfectly okay to drop chemical weapons on civilians. Or that it’s entirely ok to force boys and girls into sex slavery, or behead nonbelievers, or push those of different faiths off of rooftops for fun. Others have a stated goal of seeing the United States wiped off the face of the Earth.
My time in Iraq with the U.S. Army Special Forces was undeniably some of the most rewarding in my career. Their motto, is “De Opresso Liber”. Can I ask a Latin scholar in the audience to translate it for me? That’s right, “To free the Oppressed”. Into the breach between the things we cherish and the forces that would harm them, steps the Soldier.
So, to summarize, what being a Veteran signifies to me…
Answering the call of Service to the Nation.
Character formed by the experiences, and how we respond to them, and
Dedication to a code of conduct, standing for something greater than yourself.
On a personal note, I have friends who are no longer with us, better men than me. I would like to imagine that if they could look down on us right now, they would say “Man… you talk too much.” And they might add this. Life is a one-way trip. You get one chance to make the World a better place, and then your time is gone. You get one shot – so make it count.
Thank you for your time.”
At first, stunned silence. Then, a standing ovation. Some students came up to me afterward and wanted to make a point of shaking my hand and saying thank you. Same with the faculty. One of the teachers came up and said “thank you for reminding the students that the military doesn’t take sides, and that it has ethics. There are a lot of students who are worried… since the election.”
We live in strange times. The cubs win the World Series, 70 degrees in November, and there is a megalomaniacal Oompah Loompah about to take over the leadership of the greatest country on Earth.
But the comment that really struck me me was the kid who said “thank you for showing us there are still some people worth believing in.”
I submit that there is still a lot of good in this world, ladies and gentlemen. And it is our duty to protect it.
Disclaimer: this article represents the personal opinion of the author, and does not reflect an official position of the US Army, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.