In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic—an organization formed to recognize the brotherhood of American Civil War Veterans—designated the 30th day of May for “decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country” asking their members to “in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect.”
Their hope was that memorial services would continue every year as long as any “survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades.” The Grand Army of the Republic was dissolved in 1956, but their legacy continues in our annual recognition each Memorial Day.
On this Memorial Day, I’d like to introduce my guest speaker, Dan Rice, who delivered the following in a Memorial Day Speech, 2016 Glastonbury, Connecticut, Posted by request.
Thank you for inviting me to speak here at your Memorial Day parade in Glastonbury. It is an honor. I grew up nearby in Rocky Hill, CT, and spent my first eighteen years in the same house….the house my parents still live in today. We used to come across the river to visit Glastonbury all the time to see my aunt, uncle and their four children– my cousins. In fact, when I deployed to combat in Iraq in 2004, they threw my going away party at their home here in Glastonbury. So Glastonbury to me always seems like a second hometown. My dad and mom used to take us as kids to every Memorial Day parade in Rocky Hill, and back then, in the 1970s, we would hear speeches from men who had served in World War II, the Korean War, and some fresh back from a horrible war in a place called Vietnam.
In my mind’s eye, I remember one thing about all of those speakers from my childhood- all of those speakers seemed really OLD! Well now, I guess, I’m the old man giving the speech. I just turned 50 so I guess I am officially OLD.
My father served in the Army and my older brother joined the Marines at age 17. I have been in and around the military for the three decades in different capacities and have been in uniform to Germany, Panama, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, and been out of uniform as a contractor or investor in Afghanistan, Beirut, Oman, Yemen and several other garden spots. In thirty years of being in, and mostly around the military, I can tell you our military is truly one of the nation’s most noble professions, and the men and women who serve today are the greatest of their generation.
There are three All-American holidays in the United States:
1. The 4th of July 2. Veterans Day, and 3. This celebration on Memorial Day
As Americans we celebrate each of these All-American holidays to honor very different occasions that I would like to highlight here.
The 4th of July is to celebrate our American independence and our brave Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776.
Veterans Day, November 11th, began after World War I, originally called Armistice Day, it evolved to honor all Veterans. We currently have 21 million living veterans and every November 11th we honor them.
The most solemn of our national holidays is Memorial Day. On this day we honor those who are no longer with us, those who cannot attend this celebration, because every one who we honor gave their lives so that we may live free. This is why on this date you do not thank Veterans for their service- for if they are alive; this holiday is not to honor them. It is a solemn day, a date to remember our greatest heroes- so that we never forget their sacrifice or those of their families. We pause to remember their stories of valor, of heroics, and of great sacrifice…stories of citizens from all walks of life who wore the uniform of the American soldier. Their stories are too often painful, but still need to be told.
At a remembrance held at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868, with the wounds of the Civil War still fresh in our young nation, President James Garfield said that he found it difficult to utter the “right words” on this occasion. “If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.” That day in 1868, originally called “Decoration Day,” eventually evolved into our current “Memorial Day”.
In the 241 years since our Revolutionary War first began at Lexington & Concord, the United States has had over 1.3 million servicemen and women killed in action. That number is hard to imagine. 1.3 million Americans have given their lives so the rest of us can live free.
In those 241 years, we have fought at least 22 major wars and conflicts:
1) The American Revolution, 2) The War of 1812, 3) The Mexican-American War, 4) The Indian Wars, 5) The Civil War – our bloodiest, 6) The Spanish-American War, 7) The Boxer Rebellion in China, 8) The Punitive Expedition to Mexico, 9) World War I –140,000 soldiers died, 10) World War II – 405,000 soldiers died, 11) The Cold War, 12) The Korean War– 37,000 soldiers died, 13) Dominican Republic, 14) Vietnam– 58,000 soldiers died and each one is listed on the Vietnam Veterans Wall in Washington D.C., 15) Beirut, 16) Grenada, 17) Panama, 18) Operation Desert Storm, 19) Somalia, 20) Bosnia, 21) Afghanistan, and 22) Iraq.
Two of these wars are still raging, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten of these conflicts have been fought in my lifetime. In my parent’s lifetimes, America defeated the Nazi’s, the Japanese Imperialist Armies, and the global ideology against communism and oppression- the Cold War- which was essentially World War III— fought on the periphery in places like Korea, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and Grenada.
We now face a global threat from Radical Islam, and have been fighting it since 1983 in places like Beirut, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Philippines, the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon and elsewhere. This is essentially World War IV, an ideological struggle against Radical Islam. In order to defeat Radical Islam, brave soldiers need to risk their lives, and many of them have and, unfortunately, will continue to make the ultimate sacrifice.
I believe General MacArthur also said it best when speaking of those killed in action: “However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind.”
In the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and in Vietnam, many of those serving were drafted so the military could fill its ranks. They did not volunteer, but, after being drafted, they did their duty and went to war to fight for America, and many gave their lives.
After the Vietnam War, America eliminated the draft, so since 1973 every serviceman and woman is a volunteer. Every single casualty we have had since Vietnam has volunteered to go into the service to fight for our freedom. That is a remarkable fact and is yet another reason to believe in American exceptionalism. And the fact is that we have fought for fifteen years in the Middle East, with no end in sight, yet we continue to have brave young men and women raise their hands to take the oath, knowing they will likely be going to war, is remarkable. Simply remarkable.
We’ve talked about the 22 major campaigns and the 1.3 million Americans who have laid down their lives for our freedom and THOSE are who we honor here today on Memorial Day. But statistics and facts are cold, they do not tell the story of the sacrifice of these 1.3 million soldiers. Statistics and facts are not personal. So let me tell you about those who I have personally known who have sacrificed their lives for us.
Clockwise from upper left: 1LT Donnie Tillar, CPT Chris Williams, Sergeant David Collard, COL John McHugh, MAJ Rocco Barnes, MAJ Mark Fitzgerald, SGT Steve DeLuzio, CPT Phil Esposito
1LT Donnie Tillar III Donnie was a classmate and friend at West Point, and he lived on my floor in the barracks. His father was a 1959 West Point graduate, and Donnie followed his dad’s example and graduated from West Point in 1988. Donnie was killed on the last day of the war in Operation Desert Storm. Although he was a pilot, on that mission he was riding as a passenger in a Blackhawk, which was shot down- with all hands lost.
Captain Chris Williams. Another classmate of mine from West Point, he was killed by an Air Force bomb that fell short in 1995 in training. Soldiers die in combat and they die in training, and regardless of how or when they died, they should always be remembered on Memorial Day. No fire is friendly when it is coming at you.
Captain Phil Esposito. Phil was a 1997 West Point graduate and was in my unit in Iraq and I spoke to him two days before he was killed. He spoke about his baby girl, and how excited he was going to be to go home. He died two days later in an explosion that took his life and the life of Lieutenant Allen, who I had never met, but had just arrived in Iraq days earlier.
Major Rocco Barnes. Rocco was a Hollywood producer and a National Guard Special Forces officer. In his Hollywood producer role, he was filming a documentary on Military Leadership that he started in 2001, but he kept volunteering to deploy to combat…so he never finished the film. He served two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. The last time I saw Rocco, we ran into each other in Baghdad and we had a few adult beverages in the Green Zone (which was not legal but let’s keep that between us). Rocco told me a story about how he had been chasing an insurgent to a first floor rooftop in the city of Mosul- when he got up there the insurgent was standing with a grenade with the pin pulled- intent on killing himself and Rocco. Rocco shot the insurgent as Rocco jumped off the first floor roof, with the grenade exploding behind him. Rocco told the story more out of “whew, that was a close one” than to brag about anything. Rocco was killed manning a machine gun in Afghanistan as a Major, when his vehicle rolled down a mountainside. Majors are not expected to be manning machine guns, but that is the kind of guy, and leader, that he was. Rocco’s funeral in Cleveland was attended by thousands of friends, family and patriotic Cleveland citizens.
Captain Mark Fitzgerald. Mark and I served in Iraq together, we deployed the day the Red Sox won the world series (I have to say that because he was such a Red Sox fan and they finally won in 2004). While we were traveling together on a mission in Kirkuk, Iraq, he ate some local food, and came down with a disease that that Army could never identify, and it eventually killed him. He left behind a wife and a little baby girl who they had just adopted.
Colonel John McHugh was the best goalie in history of the Army soccer team at West Point (Class of 1986). He still holds the record for the most saves in a single season. His nickname was “Johnny Mac”. I played on the soccer team with him….well more accurately I was on the soccer team with him. He played. I sat the bench. John served several tours in combat as an Aviator. John was killed along with ten other servicemen in a massive suicide car bombing in Kabul in 2010. He left behind a wife, four children and a grandchild.
6,737 servicemen and women have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 50,000 have been wounded. They died of very different causes, sometimes small arms fire, IEDs, friendly fire, sometimes disease, accidents, helicopters being shot down or crashing, and even fratricide. It is inherently extremely dangerous. It is less important to remember how they died. It is more important to remember how they lived, and how they honorably raised their hands to take the oath to go to fight on behalf of all of us here. Where does America get young men and women willing to lay down their lives for the rest of us? Well, we get some from right here in Glastonbury.
Two of our heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came from Glastonbury, CT. I never had the privilege of meeting these heroes… but I have heard of and read about their sacrifice and bravery.
Marine Sergeant David Coullard, was killed in Haditha, Iraq in August 2005. I remember the day he died. I was serving in Iraq and we received the report. Sergeant Coullard was on an incredibly brave mission on a Marine Sniper team in 2005. The year we were there, we lost over 1,000 Killed in Action. It was the bloodiest year of all of our years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we certainly could not be aware of every incident. The reason I remember this day was it was very unique. That day, two Marine sniper teams of three Marines each, went out together to try to stem the flow of Al Qaeda terrorists coming from Syria into Fallujah. The teams were ambushed and they fought, and died as a team. All six Marines were killed in action. Their heroism and sacrifice, going out as such a small team on such a dangerous mission was well known throughout Iraq. It takes an incredibly brave person to go out as a three-man sniper team, alone, in a country of 26 million Iraqis.
Sergeant Steven DeLuzio, was a South Glastonbury native. He attended Norwich University and joined the US Army National Guard. Sergeant DeLuzio was serving in Eastern Afghanistan in a very dangerous and very difficult area. The terrain in the mountains of Afghanistan is brutal, it is hard to imagine from here how brutal the conditions alone are in Afghanistan. The enemy is on their home turf, and is difficult to identify and to battle. Sergeant DeLuzio was serving in a Vermont National Guard unit as an infantryman when his platoon was ambushed. He and one other soldier lost their lives in an ambush with the enemy in one of the most brutal places on earth to serve and fight.
While some of our military’s great leaders names become well known in American history and become household names, the Generals and Admirals, such as Washington, Grant, Pershing, MacArthur, Nimitz, Halsey, Patton, Puller, Schwarzkopf, Petraeus, Odierno, Mattis….. more often than not….our heroes are ordinary citizens…the ones who risk all…our neighbors, our friends…young and not-so-young- those who answered the nation’s call when we needed them most… like hometown heroes Sergeants Deluzio and Coullard.
From wars of long ago to those of recent times, this day, Memorial Day, provides us as a nation an opportunity to pause and remember the service and sacrifice of so many different and remarkable people. From the Revolutionary War through the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, we pause and reflect on all those service members who sacrificed themselves so that we might continue our lives in freedom and security.
Those we remember today came from across our country – every race and religion, from farms and factories, cities and neighborhoods, and every imaginable walk of life. At the moment of greatest danger, all of them chose to put themselves in harm’s way in defense of their comrades, their country, and each of us.
But these Soldiers were not the ONLY ones to pay a price. Every fallen hero leaves painful memories and great sorrow at home. Thousands of children since 9/11 have been left without a parent, with the surviving spouse in need of support. We as a nation must support these families to ensure the children are given every opportunity that would have been afforded if their parent had given their life for our nation. And so we honor the Gold Star families for their sacrifice, those who carry forward the memories of those who laid down their lives for the United States and the liberties for which we stand. Their pain and loss resides in all of us. And it is our duty as citizens to support these families.
So as we remember today their sons and daughters, those service members who made the ultimate sacrifice, let us also spare a thought for those unsung heroes for whom the loss is so much more personal. We recognize the sacrifice you have made, often with far less choice than the service member you lost, and we are eternally grateful. Those Gold Star families seated behind me give us strength, and help us to remember our responsibility to their loved ones. Let’s all give a round of applause to honor and support these families.
Memorial Day is about honoring the heroes who are here only in spirit–to keep their memories alive. We remember not the way they died, but more importantly the way they lived. Citizens across this incredible country, in small town and large cities, host parades of all sizes across this great Nation. We cannot help but feel awed by the enormity of sacrifices of these men and women who we honor today. On this solemn date in the rain, we feel their tears from heaven as they smile down upon us.
While those we honor today came from all walks of life, they shared fundamental qualities. They embodied courage, pride, determination, selflessness, dedication to duty and great personal integrity – all the qualities needed to serve a cause larger than one’s self.
Memorial Day is a day of solemn mourning, but it is also a day of reverent celebration–a celebration of men and women who dared all, who gave all, so that we might continue to enjoy the freedoms and benefits of this great nation.
General Patton said it best “We should not mourn the dead. We should thank God that these men (and women) lived!”
Thank you for allowing me the chance to share this day with you, and to remember these heroes…these All-American heroes.
Dan Rice, President, Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point; Co-Author “West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage”. West Point Class of 1988.
This article originally published on a LinkedIn group of which I am a member: US Military Veterans Network, on May 17, 2017.
It is the VETERAN, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the VETERAN, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the VETERAN, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the VETERAN, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble.
It is the VETERAN, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the VETERAN, not the politician, Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the VETERAN who salutes the Flag
It is the VETERAN who serves under the Flag,
ETERNAL REST GRANT THEM O LORD, AND LET PERPETUAL LIGHT SHINE UPON
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Should you have a question or comment about this article, then scroll down to the comment section below to leave your response.
If you want to learn more about the Vietnam War and its Warriors, then subscribe to this blog and get notified by email or your feed reader every time a new story, picture, video or changes occur on this website – the button is located at the top right of this page.
I’ve also created a poll to help identify my website audience – before leaving, can you please click HERE and choose the one item best describing you. Thank you in advance!