Text of the comments delivered on Memorial Day 2018
By Major Dennis B. Boykin IV
Member, VFW Post 1177 of Louduon County
Good Morning Ladies & Gentlemen. It’s a great day to be an American, a great day to be a Soldier, and an especially great day to be here honoring greater Americans. Before I start, I’d like to thank Kate Trask and her staff at the Town Parks & Rec Department, especially Linda Fountain and Barb Smith, for all their wonderful work setting up today’s event.
It occurred to me, once I had accepted my homework assignment from Mayor Burk, who still hasn’t forgotten how to be a schoolteacher, that there should be theme to my remarks and I thought about the theme that guides the VFW in our actions every day: “Honoring the dead by serving the living”.
Now, apropos of an entirely different subject, the best advice I’ve ever received on public speaking came from the Command Sergeant Major on the assumption of my 2nd command as a Captain in the Army. He said “Sir, I know you’ve done this before, but here’s some advice for this morning’s ceremony: “Be, Brief, Be Brilliant, and Be Seated”.
I remembered that advice as I was researching the speech because I certainly don’t have the words to match speakers who have spoken before me, nor do I have the oratory skills to prepare a short speech. Truly great speakers can do that in few words, but I am not a great speaker. The greatest of all time may have been President Abraham Lincoln, who’s address at the dedication of the soldier’s cemetery in Gettysburg Pennsylvania on November 19th, 1863 was only 10 sentences long. In that speech, which few remember was actually the second speech of the day, (and the first was an hour long) he said “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
As I read those words and thought about speaking today on behalf of the millions of men and women who have served our nation over its 242-year history, but who cannot be with us today, a second set of words came to mind. Popularized by Steven Spielberg’s movie saving Private Ryan, the eloquent letter from President Abraham Lincoln to Mrs. Lydia Parker Bixby of Boston in November of 1864 characterizes the theme of serving those who survive our heroes. The actor portraying our own General George C Marshall reads:
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully, A. Lincoln.
Having quoted twice from President Lincoln, I’ll say that his statement that the great task remaining before us that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth, is as valid today as it was in 1863.
In order that we might continue the work for which so many died, I believe we first need to honor them, and then set about the task of continuing to strengthen the Republic.
In 1868 commander-in-chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Civil War Veteran’s organization, issued what was then known as general order number 11 designating May 30 as Decorations Day, following the example of veteran’s organizations across the South. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed.
The date of Decoration Day was chosen either because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle, as one author claims, or because all the flowers would be in bloom.
The official birthplace of Memorial Day was designated in 1966 by an act of Congress which set a national date to honor those who have given their lives in Service to the nation.
Memorial Day is of particular importance to those of us in the VFW not only because of the remembrance of our departed comrades, but also because of the work that we do serving the
living. Many of you will leave the ceremony and head to the grocery store for a package of hot dog buns you forgot for today’s barbecue, and at the grocery store you’ll see one of my comrades handing out what we call buddy poppies – small paper flowers indicative of the poppies in Flanders fields. “In Flanders Fields” is a poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McRae, a physician with the Canadian expeditionary force in WWI. The opening lines refer to the fields of poppies that grew among the soldiers’ graves in Flanders, France. The poppy became the symbol of service
work performed by both the American Legion and the VFW, with the VFW’s distribution beginning in 1922.
During our 1923 encampment the VFW decided that Buddy Poppies would be assembled by disabled and needy veterans who would be paid for their work to provide them with financial assistance. Today our buddy poppies are still assembled by disabled veterans in VA hospitals around the nation and distributed throughout the year by VFW Posts. The VFW doesn’t ask for money for the poppies, but donations are usually received.
These donations are separated from the post general fund and provided to our relief fund. In conjunction with our brethren in the American Legion disabled American Veterans, Marine Corps League, and others, we provide financial support and other assistance to veterans in need, and that is the only use for those funds.
I first learned of this program when the post commander asked me to assist (with several other members) a Marine Corps veteran’s widow, living in Ashburn, working in Old Town
Alexandria, supporting two children on a dental hygienists pay. She was 2 months behind in her rent because her office shut down for six weeks. Our post, in conjunction with the Loudoun County veteran service coordinator and other organizations, arranged to bring her rent current, while we canvassed every dentist in Leesburg and suggested that they should consider her for employment. She got three interviews, two offers, and is now driving from Ashburn to Leesburg for work.
What we didn’t tell them was she was a widow because her husband, a former staff sergeant in the Marine Corps, couldn’t handle the stress of his injuries after three tours in Iraq, and swallowed all of his pills one morning while she was out, and the kids were at day care. The casualties of war are many faceted and sometimes we don’t see all the injuries until the soldier is home.
The assistance we rendered to this widow, and the hundreds of others since then, clearly define for me the mission of ‘Honoring The Dead By Serving the Living”.
Since VFW Post 1177 was formed there have been 73 different combat operations or campaigns for which a service member would qualify for membership in the VFW. In fact, as I speak here today there are tens of thousands serving in war zones around the world, putting themselves in harm’s way to protect our way of life. Unfortunately, some of them will return thru Dover Air Force Base, and will be according that most solemn of rituals, the dignified transfer of remains.
As we honor those who have returned in that fashion, I remember the last time I was witness to such occasion. As an Army leader, I lived in fear of two things: First, that I might let my soldiers down with poor leadership, and 2nd, regardless of doing it right or wrong, having to face the family members who bore the brunt of a combat loss. In October of 2009 I joined my VFW comrades at the Leesburg Executive Airport as we stood by for the arrival of Army Specialist Stephan Mace of Purcellville, one of 8 soldiers killed at the battle of Combat Outpost Keating. Mistakes made by Army leaders cost dearly, and I saw that clearly as his mother,
Vanessa Adelson, kept her hand on the casket from airplane to hearse, and then traveled home on streets lined by what seemed like every person in Loudoun County.
Stephan’s name, along with three others from our Nation’s most recent conflict, are on the far stone on the south side of this courthouse, and as you seem them in your travels, please remember that every one of those names represents a “Gold Star Mother” – someone like Mrs. Bixby, or Vanessa Adelson.
As you go about the rest of your day, your month, and your year until we gather here again, please remember what these veterans gave their lives for. Think of all that has happened right here in this courtyard, and on these steps over the last 242 years – and think about how far we advanced the causes of human rights since then both here in our country, and around the world. This advancement could not have happened in a dictatorship – it could only happen in a free country – a country truly dedicated to the premise that ‘all men are created equal’.
All men and women are created equal – some just walk a little taller in our minds. These are the men, and women, George Patton referred to when he said: “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died; rather we should thank God such men lived.”
So, in the spirit in which I received this assignment from the Mayor of Leesburg, the schoolteacher, I’ll assign you some homework, as well. Go forth today and take this nation forward, in honor of their memories, and continue to make it a better
place, for all of us. Don’t accept injustice – fight for what’s right. Don’t accept hatred – argue against it. Honor the memories of those who gave their lives by joining them in defending this great nation.
This, I think, should be our task going forward.
Thank you for listening, thank you for being here today, and thank you for giving me, and my comrades in the VFW, a great country to serve. God Bless our Town, and God Bless these United States of America.