HOMETOWN HERO SPEAKS TO STUDENTS

By John M. Benson, Pawling News Chronicle.
Forward by Bill Thompson 06/02/2006

Christian Labra graduated from Pawling High School (NY) with the Class of 1997, graduated with honors from West Point Military Academy with the Class of 2001, and deployed to Iraq with U.S. Army in 2003, where he sustained severe injuries.

Labra received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the auditorium full of the entire student body, as he completed his keynote speech at the induction ceremony for the Mary F. Taber Chapter of the National Honor Society at Pawling High School on May 26.

His address to the Honor Society and the entire student body is as follows:

First of all, I would just like to congratulate the students getting inducted today into the National Honor Society. For many of you, this is probably not the first recognition of academic success and surely won't be the last. I am honored and flattered that you have invited me to speak. For the parents, guests and fellow students, I hope the students inspire you to achieve success wherever your interests lie. This ceremony is one of the many payoffs for keeping your eye on the ball. Congratulations for all your hard work.

I was inducted here about 10 years ago, sitting right there in your shoes. It makes me feel pretty old, but I feel better knowing that must make Mr. Tolan feel really old. Ten years sounds like a long time, but it really isn't. I've heard that a million times, and I didn't believe it, just as I'm sure you won't believe me. But please take to heart what I say, because I understand how hard it is to be sitting in your shoes. Ten years is not long enough to forget the difficulties you face.

When I was inducted, the speaker was Mr. James Earl Jones, so as you can imagine, Darth Vader's boots are some pretty tough shoes to fill. No offense to Mr. Jones, but he had it pretty easy. We really didn't care what he said, as long as he threw around a “May the force by with you!” or a “Luke, I am your father.” Unfortunately, I have no catchphrase for you, but hopefully, I can at least keep it short, knowing that today is a half-day.

I stand here in uniform due to the formality of the event. And as you all know, my experiences in Iraq are a big part of why I am qualified to speak to you. I'm not here to sugarcoat the war, recruit you into service, or try to sway your opinion of foreign policy. And I hope that I don't rely too much on war stories to impart the lessons I've learned, but a war story here and there never hurts.

The theme of your induction is growth. This is actually something I can comment on.

As long as I can remember, academic success came easily for me. In elementary school, I was a bright kid and before I knew it, I got tagged as a “smart kid” and gained a reputation that really made it easy to sustain successes, probably not unlike a lot of you up here. I graduated Pawing without ever really being truly tested, or at least, never tested on the level that I would later be. Nonetheless, I had the usual high school drama, but I never really considered that I may mess up anything important. I was comfortable with success and fate seemed to look out for me.

I had my first minor wake-up call at West Point, but once again, I was able to start rising among my peers and finished up with a pretty successful career at the academy.

Things just seemed to work out for me. I entered the Army and once again, I became the go-to guy in my unit. I deployed to Iraq and was in charge of a tight group of guys who trusted my abilities with their lives and vice versa, and as luck would have it, the soldiers and sergeants I inherited were stellar.

As a platoon leader of 40 soldiers in downtown Baghdad, I wielded a good deal of power over both my soldiers and over the Iraqis. I don't want to sound like a power monger, because I say that with deep respect for the responsibility that was entrusted to me. I viewed it as a deep honor and didn't want to fail my soldiers who trusted my orders, the Iraqi men and women who relied on our fair security, and just as importantly, I didn't want to fail my country.

One evening on a patrol, that all came crashing down around me, literally. In a second, everything changed and I believed fate had finally turned her back on me. The emotional and physical recovery from my injuries was exhausting and demoralizing. This feeling of failure was overwhelming, and coupled with a consistent flow of morphine, I was a wreck, as you could imagine.

Immediately, I received more support than I ever had in my life. From the medic that performed my initial care, to the nurse who woke me up and ran her fingers through my hair to comfort me, and I still vow to ask her to marry me if I ever meet her again; to my doctor, a fellow West Pointer who became my finest mentor and whose alma mater I will attend for medical school; to my parents who dropped everything, flew to Europe to ensure their boy was OK; to my sister who held down the fort in New York and answered the millions of questions of what happened; to my soldiers' wives and children who ensured I knew they viewed me as
part of the family; and finally to this community.

I remember immaturely bashing Pawling as a fish bowl where everybody knew everyone else's business. I'm sure the students here can relate. But the outpouring of support from this town and school was amazing. It is something that cannot ever be repaid, and while I may never repay the principal of that loan, maybe I can work off some of the interest.

The most important medals I received from Iraq are the two titanium rods still running the length of the broken bones in my legs. Personally, they symbolize the perspective I gained on life. I was incredibly lucky. It is so easy to bumble through the daily ankle-biters of life, and feel you are fighting through your obstacles alone. I saw the network that was looking out for me, and most importantly, I let it carry me through the storm in order to finally grow. You are all part of that network and I am forever indebted.

Things started to look OK again. My wounds began to heal, I was recovering in Germany, my unit was scheduled to return from Iraq, and life in general started to return to some degree of normalcy. Then bad news hit from Iraq.

My soldiers were extended to support the Iraqi elections, and then they started getting hurt, badly hurt. Within weeks, all of my closest subordinate leaders were dead or wounded and in Germany. The situation was as bad as anything I've ever witnessed in my life. Eight of my soldiers were killed, and the majority of the rest were hurt or maimed. The wives and mothers of those soldiers felt that cold feeling that fate had turned on them, and I was beginning to know the feeling well. It was tough. Men that seemed infallible to me died, and the finality of it is still hard to swallow.

Unfortunately, nothing will bring those guys back, and it is a burden that my generation of veterans and the deceased families will carry forever, but standing here in this ceremony is all part of healing that wound, and ultimately growing.

I can tell you from personal experience, war is ugly, politics are ugly at times, and even people can be pretty ugly. It can be easy to fall into the trap of confusing the soldiers with the politics. But I can tell you, those soldiers in Iraq were not there in order to get cheaper gas, nor were they there primarily to liberate the Iraqis, although that became a strong motivation. Those men and women are there in order to fulfill their commitment to do what their nation asked as honorably as they can, so that you can take advantage of the liberties we exercise in this country.

Service in the military is not for everyone, but every American has the responsibility to live their lives to the fullest and seek greatness, in order to repay the sacrifices of parents, teachers, mentors, and service members who constantly push this nation to better and better things.

The honorees today are realizing that greatness and if there is a heaven, I know my soldiers are looking down on you all with pride, knowing that you are working to achieve your potential. I know that is a rosy picture of a horrendous event, but I truly believe it. Standing here makes every second worth it.

For me, true growth finally occurred when I realized that I could use my experiences to take care of soldiers who were also wounded in war. In preparing for this ceremony, I've decided that growth is when you take your experiences, your potential, and the experiences and sacrifices of others, and you finally realize that potential.

Growth is occurring throughout your time in high school and ultimately through your entire lives. Enjoy yourselves, because life's clock is ticking in one direction and things might not go the way you planned, as I quickly found out. But keep your focus on both targets. Have fun now, but don't close any doors on yourselves, because there are great things in store for you.

In reality, the bottom line is this: You guys and girls don't need the force to be with you. You have a network of people that care about you and who will carry you when you need it.

Travel the world, seek to understand the gray areas in life, and use those experiences to grow and to be great. When things get tough, know that at least this small town will have you back.

I am living proof of it.

Thank you for letting me speak and proving to me that the last two years were worth it.

Labra is a captain in the U.S. Army, and he has been accepted to study medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda Maryland.