Honoring All Who Served

SAF/PA 2004 Air Force Public Affairs

Veterans Day, 2004

Today we honor the men and women who have served our nation, both in war and in peace. Wherever they have served, our nation's veterans have answered the call to defend our freedom, and if need be, to give their lives in its defense. Veterans Day reminds us of their sacrifices. 

Veterans Day originally began as a celebration of peace. During World War One, our nation and our allies fought the war to end all wars. The guns finally fell silent over the battlefields of Europe on November 11, 1918. "The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month" marked the end of the most brutal war the world had seen up to that time. World leaders prayed such brutality would never again be inflicted upon their nations. As a reminder, Great Britain and France commemorated the end of the war as Armistice Day. President Woodrow Wilson later directed that "Armistice Day" be an annual celebration in the United States. 

Sadly, within forty years our nation had fought in two more conflicts -- the Second World War and the Korean War. Each required the extreme heroism and sacrifices of our men and women in uniform. Consequently, many citizens recommended that the men and women who had served our nation during those conflicts deserved recognition for their service, too. And so, in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower renamed the November holiday "Veterans Day," to salute all veterans who have served during our nation's conflicts. 

While the name of this day of remembrance has changed, its fundamental purpose remains unchanged: to honor America's veterans for their patriotism, their love of country, and their willingness to serve the common good. Today we honor the living veterans who have served our nation, both in war and in peace. For many, the costs of doing so have been acute, physically and mentally. Since World War One, more than one million veterans have been wounded while serving our nation. Many continue to receive treatment for battlefield injuries and mental trauma they suffered decades ago in battles few of us can even remember but they can never forget. Our nation rose to greatness on the strength of their service, and their stories are woven into the fabric of our nation's history. Because of their sacrifices, we are free to live, to work, and to raise our families as we please. 

Earlier this year, we marked the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in World War II that began the liberation of Europe. More than 16 million Americans served in that war. About 4 million of the so-called "Greatest Generation" remain alive today, but their ranks are dwindling. Each day, about 1,100 World War II veterans pass away. We owe them an incredible debt. Decades after the Normandy invasion, a veteran stood in the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. He said, "Standing here in appreciation and sadness and postponed grief, I can only wonder -- why not me?" Millions of veterans have asked themselves the same question, and it has shaped the course of their lives. Another veteran observed: "I feel like I've played my part in turning this from a century of darkness into a century of light." 

That generation passed the light of liberty to the next generation through countless acts of courage by many men and women. One of them was John Foley, a soft-spoken fellow from Chicago who was a clerk-typist in the Army Air Forces. He was on his way to be a company clerk in the South Pacific in December 1941. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he felt that typing just wasn't enough. He wanted in on the action. And so, he mysteriously got orders transferring him to flight duty. He had no aerial gunnery training - he was a typist - but he volunteered as a gunner, and was assigned to the crew of a Martin B-26 Marauder. On Foley's very first combat mission, Japanese fighters attacked his plane. During the encounter, Foley shot down his first enemy aircraft. Foley was dubbed "Johnny Zero," and even had a popular song written about him. He flew 31 more combat missions, shot down six more Japanese planes, and survived three B-26 crashes. Then he went to Europe, where he completed another 31 combat missions. 

The Cold War saw a new type of veteran...the kind that waited on cold ramps and in missile control centers. They were ready to execute the most powerful and destructive force in history. Thankfully, due to their vigilance, the unthinkable never happened. They continue to perform alert duties providing our "Top Cover" and guarding us from known and unknown enemies. 

The light of liberty shone in Vietnam, too. The story of Airman First Class John Levitow was one example. In 1969, he was a loadmaster on an AC-47 Dragon Ship in Vietnam. While on patrol one night, his aircraft was diverted to aid in the defense of the nearby Army post. As the aircraft circled over the post, Airman Levitow began dropping flares out of it. Soon afterwards an enemy mortar struck the aircraft. The explosion knocked Airman Levitow down, and a flare he was handling was thrown inside the cargo compartment amid the other flares and ammo. The activated flare was due to separate explosively from its canister and ignite within seconds. Without thought of his own safety, Airman Levitow threw himself on it and tossed it out of the aircraft moments before it ignited, saving the crew and their aircraft. 

Major John Carney is another veteran whose actions long ago are forgotten by many of us. He deserves our praise for paving the way for the Desert One rescue attempt mission in 1980. That was the mission to free the American embassy hostages held in Iran. Working alone, Major Carney marked out the area and set up the lights in the desert that the troops later used when preparing for the rescue. He later witnessed the accident in the desert that claimed eight American servicemen's lives. 

Veterans Day is a day to honor not only the "Greatest Generation," but also the latest generation - those in uniform today who are defending our way of life. We can be proud of our latest generation of heroes. A few years ago, many wondered whether today's young people had "the right stuff" -- the fortitude to face the world's toughest challenges. On the morning of September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked our nation, killing 3,000 innocent men, women and children, we discovered they had the right stuff. Our men and women in uniform answered the call in the finest tradition of the Greatest Generation. 

Today, more than three years after we responded to those attacks, our service men and women continue the tough duty that freedom requires. On this Veterans Day, we are again a nation at war. Americans in uniform are again fighting and dying in foreign lands. In the streets of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan, members of our armed forces continue the tradition of those heroes who served before them. They are providing security in these troubled countries so their people can live in peace, freed of oppression and brutality. 

The war on terrorism will likely last many years. Our enemy is determined to destroy America and all she stands for, just as the Axis powers were determined to destroy American forces during World War II and the Communists of the Soviet Union were during the Cold War. But the forces of freedom will prevail. We know they will because our service men and women continue to serve with distinction. Consider Major Andra Kniep, who earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses while supporting Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan two years ago. During that operation she flew an OA-10 aircraft, serving as both the flight lead and the forward air controller. She controlled close air support aircraft, bomber aircraft, UAVs and crowded airspace in the Operation Anaconda area with very little preparation time. Her aerial skill and professional competence helped save lives while inflicting heavy losses on enemy forces during that operation. 

Or consider the actions of Major Julie Carpenter, a nurse; Staff Sgt. Terry Hall, a medical technician; and Staff Sgt. Beth Shapiro, a laboratory technician. While under mortar attack during Operation Iraqi Freedom they aided two seriously wounded Iraqis who had been involved in a car accident during the attack. Several days later the same Iraqis came forward with critical information that eventually led to the capture of Saddam Hussein in a spider hole on a farm in the area. 

Another one of our great Battlefield Airmen is Staff Sgt. Michael Paulson. While accompanying a group of New Zealand Special Operators, he went on a 22-day patrol deep in enemy territory. Sergeant Paulson was manning a security post on the perimeter when they came under heavy rocket propelled grenades and machine gun fire. He engaged those attackers and returned fire and simultaneously coordinated close air support for the team and also medical evacuation for his wounded team members. 

And don't forget our space warriors, like Major Mark Main, a space and missile operator who, while deployed and charged with monitoring blue force tracking, integrated space capabilities to produce an immediate effect. When a Navy aircraft went down in enemy territory during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, Major Main immediately used a variety of space assets to locate the last precise location of the aircraft and passed on their coordinates to the Combat Search & Rescue crew before they were off the ground. The crew of the downed aircraft was safe in less than two hours. Space capabilities and their operators took the "Search" out of Search and Rescue. 

These stories are just a few of many that illustrate the efforts of our air and space warriors, from the past to the present. Their legacy is a proud and noble one, bringing freedom and opportunity to people around the world who once lived in fear and despair. On this Veterans Day, our veterans can proudly survey the results of their shared sacrifice: hundreds of emerging and established democracies where the citizens live in freedom. 

For their sacrifice, we thank those veterans who served in past conflicts and those who serve now. We thank those young people who will serve our nation in the future. And we thank everyone who provides unique and individual support for all of our veterans. In whatever group you stand, each contributes to the greater good. And for that, our Air Force and our nation salute you.