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Veterans Day 2004
SAF/PA 2003 Air Force Public Affairs
Veterans Day, 2003
We gather today to honor the men and women who have worn this nation's uniform. More importantly, we join together to thank them for their service and their devotion to duty. More than 48 million Americans have served our country since 1776. Whether they served in time of war or peace, America's veterans all share a common bond - their unwavering belief in the cause of freedom, a belief so strong they were willing to give their lives, if need be, in its defense. Sadly, nearly a million have made the ultimate sacrifice in combat or combat-related events.
Today marks the 50th year America has gathered in November to mark Veterans Day. But this solemn occasion goes back much further. It has its origins in World War I. In 1918, at "the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month," the guns fell silent on Europe's muddy battlefields. President Woodrow Wilson, always the idealist, called it "the war to end all wars," and ordered that the Armistice be commemorated in succeeding years. But then, after the Korean War, President Dwight Eisenhower renamed the holiday "Veterans Day," to salute all veterans, no matter when or where they served.
While the name has changed over the years, its purpose remains unchanged: to remember the sacrifice of those who have died and to honor those who are still with us. We owe so much to our veterans, and it is a debt we can never truly repay. Their stories are the story of our history, because America rose to greatness on their shoulders. We owe them our very way of life, our freedom to live, work and raise our families as we please. The very least we can do is to honor their sacrifices, and thank them for all they've done for this great country.
Veterans are this nation's unsung heroes. Their families and friends may have been the only ones who knew their names, who knew the sacrifices they made to serve our country. In peacetime, especially, it was easy to forget that these men and women were on duty, in lonely outposts around the world. Our veterans have missed the births of their children, wedding anniversaries and graduations. They have spent holidays in soggy rice paddies in Vietnam, amid the stinging sands of the Iraqi desert, and in the cold and rugged mountains of Eastern Europe. Abraham Lincoln made a promise to veterans in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, when he said that America would "...care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." Today, the Veterans Administration is working to fulfill that promise.
As I mentioned earlier, many of them never lived to wear the title "veteran." They died on foreign soil, defending the cause of freedom around the world. President Ronald Reagan once said, "Most of those who died in defense of our country were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives - the one they were living, and the one they would have lived. They gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers.... They gave up everything for their country, for us. All we can do is remember."
But fortunately, many more who served are still with us. More than 26 million veterans are alive today. We know them as our fathers and mothers, our uncles, or perhaps our next-door neighbors. They represent the finest men and women America has to offer, and for most, their time in uniform represents a defining moment in their lives. Military service gave these individuals a sense of commitment that lasts a lifetime. Whether they wore the uniform in wartime or peacetime, they felt a new sense of responsibility. They came to understand the price of freedom, because they could put names and faces to it. Freedom was not just an abstract concept; it was the bond of loyalty they forged with their buddies in the ranks.
One of our more colorful veterans was General George Patton, whose birthday, ironically enough, falls on Veterans Day (November 11, 1885). After one spectacular battlefield victory in World War II, Patton said, "Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance."
War presents us with a grim paradox: it brings out both the worst and the best of mankind. Our veterans know only too well the dark side of humanity, whether it be the horrors of Nazi concentration camps that were liberated by Allied troops, or the atrocities inflicted on our soldiers and airmen in the POW camps in Korea and Vietnam. The two world wars brought death on a global scale. World War I left 9 million dead and 21 million wounded. Two decades later, 16.5 million Americans served in World War II, and 407,000 lost their lives.
But veterans also have seen the nobler instincts of man. Army Sgt. Bob Barfield, for instance, ignored orders to abandon the dead and wounded strewn across a Korean War battlefield. Instead, he carried his wounded platoon commander to safety, even shielding him with his own body when they came under fire from a group of Chinese soldiers. In the ensuing firefight, Sgt. Barfield killed five of the attackers and rallied the surviving members of his squad to block the Chinese infantry from overrunning their command bunker. Sgt Barfield later won the Silver Star for his heroism.
Flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker said, "Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared." Certainly veterans like Sgt Barfield have displayed remarkable courage throughout their years of service.
To some, Korea was "the forgotten war." As we mark 50 years since the end of formal hostilities, we cannot forget that the Korean peninsula remains a tense and dangerous place today. Nowhere in the world is the contrast between freedom and dictatorship so evident. In South Korea, a vibrant economy is testament to the power of free markets and democracy. But in North Korea, the Communist dictatorship is literally starving its people, while continuing to build up a military force armed with weapons of mass destruction.
Not every veteran has seen combat, of course. But even in peacetime, they face dangers that most other Americans never know. Hazardous night-time training missions in high-speed fighter aircraft, rescuing crewmembers from downed aircraft, or providing relief supplies after a natural disaster all come with elements of risk. But they have important jobs to do, and thank goodness we have always had young men and women ready to do them.
Our veterans are living examples of what it means to be good citizens. They have given us a lifetime of service, and the country has been enriched by their contributions, both in and out of uniform. And speaking of "citizen-soldiers," we are increasingly calling on the members of our Guard and Reserve to serve on the front lines of the War on Terrorism. We simply could not accomplish our mission without the help of the Reserve Component.
General Omar Bradley said, "In war, there is no prize for the runner-up." Never was that more true than in the War on Terrorism. The possibility that terrorists may possess deadly chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons is truly a horrific thought. We must confront shadowy terrorist networks in more than 60 countries around the world, before they confront us here on Main Street. The stakes are unimaginably high, as we learned just over two years ago, when hijackers turned our own commercial airliners into weapons of mass destruction, killing 3,000 innocent civilians.
Technology has changed considerably since the veterans of World Wars I and II fought against tyranny. Today, we have smart bombs, satellite communications systems, and stealth fighters and bombers that can enter enemy airspace cloaked in virtual invisibility. The business of warfare has become far more sophisticated, even in the decade since the first Gulf War was fought. But one military asset has not changed: the character and resourcefulness of America's men and women in uniform. As General Patton said, "Wars may be fought by weapons, but they are won by men."
The legacy of America's veterans is a proud and honorable one. No matter where or when they served, our nation's armed forces acted honorably and decently, liberating countries from the hands of brutal dictators. This tradition continues with the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, where our forces defeated the forces of tyranny that once enslaved those nations. And our uniformed forces continue to help build roads and bridges, utility systems, schools and hospitals, so these countries can begin to establish their own democratic governments.
American veterans can look around the globe and proudly survey the results of their shared sacrifice: hundreds of emerging and established democracies where the citizens now live in freedom.
To all veterans, we say, Thank you. Thanks for your sacrifices, for your sense of duty, and for your service. Our nation salutes you, and we gathered here today salute you.