Today is Memorial Day, a special day set aside to remember and honor all the heroic men and women of the United States military who gave their lives defending our freedom. Although we should remember and honor them every day that we enjoy those freedoms.
I don’t think it would be too surprising or offensive if I said that a lot of Americans today are, well…a little spoiled. Many have never known a time when the military wasn’t all-voluntary. These days, some of us think we’re making a big sacrifice if we make do without the latest model iPhone. But today is a day to stop and reflect on what real sacrifice means.
The exact origins of the US Memorial Day aren’t exactly clear. People have decorated soldiers’ graves for centuries. In the US, the Civil War took so many lives that special days for placing flowers on the graves of the fallen arose in both the North and South. The first official recognition came in 1868, when Gen. John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Union veterans’ group, The Grand Army of the Republic, took inspiration from a Southern practice and declared May 5th as “Decoration Day.”
While it was originally intended to honor Civil War casualties, it soon expanded into a day to honor all American military veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice – who gave up their homes, their families, their very lives – everything they had, and everything they could ever hope to have or be in the future -- for their country.
From the American Revolution through the War of 1812, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and all the other wars, police actions and rescue missions since 1776, over 1,308,000 Americans in uniform have laid down their lives for causes that they believed were greater than themselves.
To give you an idea of the enormity of that sacrifice, imagine if all those soldiers, sailors and airmen could come back to life for a parade in their honor. Imagine them marching past you in rows of ten, each row taking just 10 seconds to pass. That parade of fallen heroes would go on and on, row after row marching past, hour after hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for over 15 days. That is the enormity of the sacrifice that has been made to defend our freedom and security.
And those are only the ones who made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. It doesn’t even count the millions more who gave their limbs, their sight, the “best years of their lives,” for their country and their posterity. That’s us.
But just as we remember the many veterans who risked or gave their lives in the line of duty, we must also remember that we have a duty to them. We have a duty to help the families of those who never returned, and to provide the very best of care to those who came back wounded, whether physically or psychologically. We also have a unique system of government in which the Commander-in-Chief is elected by the people and may have no personal military experience. That’s why all those who hold that office have a duty to get the best advice in dealing with military matters and to do everything in their power never to risk our troops' lives on unnecessary or half-hearted missions; and that once committed, to make sure they have everything they need to do their job as effectively and safely as possible.
Gen. George S. Patton once said (in far more colorful language) that you don’t win a war by dying for your country, but by making the other side die for their country. That’s blunt, but true. In looking back over my previous Memorial Day shows, I found stories that reminded me of how quickly things can change.
In 2015, I had a heartbreaking story about Debbie Lee, mother of Marc Alan Lee, the first American soldier to die in the Battle of Ramadi, Iraq, driving out the insurgents who had made it their headquarters. Her son was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star of Valor and Purple Heart. She was distraught at President Obama’s decision to pull troops out before the region was stabilized, which allowed ISIS militants to pour back in so that it had to be taken back by force all over again.
Mrs. Lee knew her son had given his life willingly, and that his sacrifice and that of his comrades was not in vain. She also knew from her son the great successes our military had accomplished, but she didn’t understand the seeming lack of strategy or common sense from our leaders who seemed to be throwing away all they had fought and died for. As she put it then, “America is a strong nation, and we need to come back with leadership that lets the rest of the world know that we won’t tolerate this. We won’t put up with this.”
That Gold Star Mom expressed a concept that too many people still don’t seem to understand: projecting strength doesn’t invite attacks, projecting weakness does. Despots around the world test each new US President to see what they can get away with; to see if they are dealing with a lion or a paper tiger, and if their threats are backed with steel or just red lines in the sand. A number of tyrants and terrorists who had been riding high recently learned that those days are over. The “rules of engagement” that put handcuffs on our troops and forced them practically to be looking down the barrels of enemy guns before they were allowed to act are thankfully gone. So, too, are the days of ignoring deliberate provocations that kill or threaten innocent people, or America committing a fraction of the might needed to finish the job.
It was a lesson that I hope future leaders never forget: our military see it as their duty to lay down their lives for their country. Our leaders should see it as their duty to do everything possible to win wars quickly and decisively, without making that sacrifice necessary.
Finally, if a veteran offers you a poppy today, I hope you will dig deep to help and wear that poppy proudly. The crepe paper poppies are made by wounded veterans as part of their therapeutic rehabilitation and distributed by the American Legion and the VFW in exchange for donations to help disabled and hospitalized vets.
The red poppy as a symbol of Memorial Day comes from the famous World War I poem “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae, about the veterans’ cemetery in Flanders. McCrae served in Belgium, where the Germans launched one of the earliest chemical weapons attacks, turning former farm fields into deadly battlefields. Every spring, red poppies bloom around those fields, as if to remind us of the blood shed there by those soldiers:
“In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses…row on row.”
The poem goes on to remind us that we have an obligation beyond remembering the war dead, tending their graves and flying our flags today. These heroes gave their lives to preserve American principles such as freedom, liberty, democracy, fighting tyranny and defending the weak…principles that they passed on to us, and it is now our sacred duty to preserve them for future generations. The poem ends,
“To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
If you really want to honor these greatest of all American heroes, then make sure they can rest in peace by taking up the torch they have passed to you, and never letting it drop.
Please say a prayer for a heroic World War II veteran, former President George Bush, who was taken to a hospital in Maine Sunday, a day after attending an American Legion Memorial Day event. He was suffering from fatigue and low blood pressure and is under observation. More details are at the link. Our thoughts and prayers are with him.
On Memorial Day weekend, we pay tribute to many American heroes of the US military who gave their lives to protect our safety and freedom. But let’s also take a moment to throw a Huck’s Hero salute to science teacher Jason Seaman of Noblesville West Middle School in Indianapolis.
Friday morning, a seventh-grade student showed up late brandishing a gun and began firing. As the students dived for cover, the unarmed Seaman started running at the shooter. Seaman tackled him, swatted the gun out of his hand and held him while the other students fled. He did all this, even though he had been shot three times himself, once through the abdomen. He and two others who were injured are recovering. Seaman is being hailed as a hero; his selfless action likely saved countless lives.
Worth noting: Seaman is also the head football coach and a former defensive end for Southern Illinois University. I’m sure he never expected to have to put those skills to use in this way, but thank God he had them, and the courage to use them.
A big Huck’s Hero salute to 94-year-old World War II airman, Capt. George W. Starks. He came to the attention of writer Carole Engle Avriett after her husband went fishing with him and told her she needed to hear his story – and it was no fish story. Three years of interviews and research later, that story is now in a new book called “Coffin Corner Boys: One Bomber, Ten Men, and Their Harrowing Escape from Nazi-Occupied France.”
The book tells the story of how a then-19-year-old Starks was shot down over France and made his way 300 miles to Switzerland, dodging Nazis and walking on a broken foot with a 20mm shell fragment in his thigh. It also honors the many people he met along the way who risked their own lives to help him. You can bet this will become a great movie someday, but to George W. Starks, it was all too real. To learn more right now about his perilous trek behind enemy lines, click the link.
And here’s some news that I’m sure Capt. Starks and many other surviving World War II veterans will be relieved to hear. It’s now official: Adolph Hitler is really and truly dead. He did not survive his bunker. Over the years, there have been countless theories that he escaped to Argentina or even to a secret underground base in Antarctica.
But recently, a French forensics team was given access to Hitler’s alleged skull and teeth in Russia’s archives for the first time since 1945. From tests on the teeth and his dentures, and a comparison of the skull to a radiograph of Hitler’s head taken when he was alive, they concluded that there’s no doubt those are his remains and that he both took cyanide and shot himself in the head. So if you are an elderly Argentinian with a toothbrush mustache who was hoping to make some money off the tabloids, you’ll have to find a new angle. Try claiming you’re Charlie Chaplin.
Here’s a story we could all really use today: Guido Filippone would already be a Huck’s Hero in my book, just for his service in the Marines. But he showed that even ten years after rejoining civilian life, he’s still living up to those high Marine standards.
Filippone was leaving a V.A. clinic when he spotted an elderly man in a World War II cap, using a walker to cross a long, hot parking lot to get to his car. Filippone offered to escort him. He discovered the man was World War II veteran Mike Gazella. He’d driven over half an hour from the town of Leander to try to get the V.A. to help cut through red tape and pay for over $4,000 worth of medical bills from his operations that Medicare wouldn’t cover. Filippone offered to help, but Gazella refused. So without Gazella’s knowledge, Filippone turned to fellow vets and set up a GoFundMe account. Within one day, the $4,000 goal was exceeded with $11,000 worth of donations. Filippone said his next move is to go to Leander, where he knows Gazella likes to hang around Starbucks…find which of the town’s two Starbucks he visits (that must be a small town, to have only two Starbucks!…and give him a check to clear his medical debts.
Filippone noted that it would have been easy just to walk away and move on, but he urged others not to do that. He said, “I always say we already have the Greatest Generation—we should be the better generation. Never miss a chance to thank a veteran.”
He’s right. So thank you, Guido and Mike, for your service. And thanks, Guido Filippone for giving us a much-needed reminder that decency, compassion and going out of your way to help a stranger are not extinct in the 21st century.