Delivered by Jim Whittington, MSGT, USAF (Ret).
Memorial Day Speaker, Sumral, MS, 28 May 2005
I am Jim Whittington, MSGT, USAF, Retired. I spent about 22 years on active duty, stationed in various places in this great country and in several overseas locations.
I was in logistics… I was a 1st SGT… I was an instructor… and I finished my military career as chief air traffic controller. My wife and three children returned to our home town of Laurel, MS after I retired. I was self-employed after I retired, and for the last 10-12 years, all that I have done is aggravate Congress, but more about that later.
I have only 3 degrees - grammar school, high school, and Sunday school.
Now for a brief background and history about Memorial Day.
Three years after the Civil War ended on 5 May 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic established Decoration Day… a day to decorate the graves of the war dead. That date is disputed. Some local observances in some communities claim to be the first to celebrate this day.
One of the first communities to observe Decoration Day was Columbus, MS - on 25 April 1866. From that locale, a group of ladies from Columbus visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers that had fallen in battle at nearby Shiloh. But, nearby, there were also graves of the Union soldiers, and their graves had also been neglected, so the women from Columbus decorated their graves also.
Now, fast forward 100 years later. The U.S. Congress, in their infinite wisdom, got into the act and made it a national holiday. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, NY as the official birthplace of Decoration Day.
Although celebrated locally in many places, Memorial Day was not declared a national holiday unti again in the infinite wisdom of Congress… you talk about gridlock in Congress (and we thought it just started)… passed a law making Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971. The purpose was to honor those that have fallen in battle from all the wars.
Many people, sad to say of this and immediate past generations, do not really understand the true meaning of Memorial Day. Too many think it is a day off to barbecue and have a picnic. How sad, and yes, that applies to politicians and bureaucrats. It gives them a 30-second sound byte on T.V. or a public relations press release in the newspaper to say how proud they are of the military. They also make remarks such as “We thank you for your services and sacrifices.”
Today, Congress continues to tinker with the earned benefits of veterans and retirees. In fact, Congress does not understand the difference between a retiree and a veteran.
But you who are here today are here for a reason, to honor those that have made the ultimate sacrifice. Taps have sounded for over 1.1 million Americans in uniforms that have died in the nation's wars.
You only hear about the National Arlington Cemetery, but there are 120 national cemeteries in 39 states, and the U.S. operates and maintains 24 burial grounds on foreign soil. The one you hear the most about is located near a place in France called Normandy - where the D-Day invasion took place.
I had the privilege of visiting Normandy and the cemetery when I was stationed in France in 1952. Visiting that site left a profound and lasting impression on me. That impression remains with me to this day. Of course, there is a cemetery close to Iwo Jima and other areas of the Pacific.
Although Memorial Day is set aside to honor the dead from all wars, I'll pick up at World War II. I was only 13 or 14 years old at the time. I can well remember my dad and granddad talking about it. There were 16-plus million Americans in uniform during World War II, and yes, that included women… WACs (the Women's Army Corp), nurses, pilots, and others.
Many of that number paid the ultimate sacrifice. Some of you may have lost a loved one in that war and the other wars since that time… Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Mogadishu, the Balkans, the First Gulf War, and, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In time of war, people lose their loved ones. This is a given fact, but the rules of engagement have changed since the early 1940's and World War II. Then, you knew who the enemy was; he was in uniform… and the same with Korea. Then in Vietnam, that began to change when some of the enemy was not in uniform.
Yes, Vietnam started to change some things… and things began to change at home with the likes of “Hanoi Jane.” Ask Jane Fonda. Her actions caused some of our POW's to be beaten, tortured, brutalized, and possibly some of them died because of her actions.
One such individual that was beaten, brutalized, and tortured, but escaped, is my friend Col. George “Bud” Day, Medal of Honor, Air Force, Retired, a lawyer and author. He was in the infamous Hanoi Hilton for 5 ½ years, and his cellmate was Senator John McCain.
Just like in Iraq and Afghanistan today, we are not fighting a uniformed army as such, and they are called insurgents or terrorists today. But make not mistake about it, our military is well trained and disciplined and they will get the job done… just as in World War II. We took the fight to the enemy and destroyed the tyranny of Hitler and his Nazi regime and to the Empire of Japan in the Pacific theater of operations. In fact, after, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, their Admiral Yamamoto said: ” We have awakened a sleeping giant.” How right he was.
That World War II generation has been chronicled by Tom Brokaw in his book, The Greatest Generation.
Off in the distance, you can hear taps being played on the trumpet in the cemeteries and burial sites as these great warriors die off at the rate of 1200-1500 per month.
Now, you are seeing another generation stepping up to the plate to become the “Next Greatest Generation.” They, too, will destroy the insurgents and terrorists that are bent on destroying the United States. But we will prevail. Don't forget that we were attacked on 9/11 just as we were on Dec. 7th 1941.
In closing, and as a reminder if you were in the military during or after World War II, tell your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren about your experiences. Write them down for the next generation.
Allow me to leave you with a few thoughts from an unknown author:
Veterans love freedom more than life.
We have pride in America and Old Glory.
We believe in true patriotism.
We believe in defending and saluting our flag.
Veterans are a special breed, the cream of the crop, #1 Americans, our nation's best, mentally, morally, and physically.
I happen to believe that we still are.
If you love freedom, free speech, printed or unspoken, uncensored press, printed or visual, and the right to vote for or against our leaders, thank a veteran.
If you enjoy the right to assemble, worship God according to the dictates of your own conscience, in the church of your choice, thank a veteran.
If you treasure the right to own property, real or personal, or travel, thank a veteran.
If you like having a fair chance to work in a decent place for decent wages to provide for you and your family a decent, dignified life, thank a veteran.
If you like living in the one country on Earth with the most freedom, with the best free schools, most churches, with the best health care now causing us to live 10, 20, 30 years longer than our parents, thank a veteran.
If you like our moral standards, our family values, our faith in God, and not be put in jail for living it, thank a veteran.
If you hate wars and love living in peace, thank a veteran.
Veterans have a common bond, friendship, and brotherhood others might not understand. It's our shared experiences. We know. We care. Veterans believe in helping each other.
Out motto is: “We honor our dead by helping the living,” and “We serve our God best when we help others most.”
Veterans are members of a winning team. We proved to the world dictators that the colors in Old Glory don't run.
Why did all the people go into uniform and some of them pay the ultimate sacrifice? To sum it up in the words of General Douglas McArthur, when he gave his final speech to the class of cadets at West Point… DUTY… HONOR… COUNTRY!