What is a “Veteran?” and Why Should it Matter to You?
by LTC Cris Simon
Earlier last 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 on 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 is 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 in 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 the air – as well as the now-infamous red-glaring rockets which were fired from the HMS Erebus. A 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, 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 U.S. 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.