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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

To My Shipmates: Remarks on the Occasion of a Reunion

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey

I’ve been looking forward to this weekend for some time. I think one of the most memorable events for anyone is that occasion when we have the opportunity to meet with people with whom we’ve shared a special and crucial part of our lives. This is especially true of those who have served the people of the United States as members of the armed forces. Service in the military is a life-changing event. Whether you wear the uniform for one hitch or an entire career, the discipline, the camaraderie, and sense of duty forever marks those who served.

The Navy took us across the globe and in the process, opening our eyes and forever altering our perspective. You can read volumes about other lands, and other cultures. But the personal perspective; the eyewitness experience dwarfs whatever knowledge you could glean from a text. It provides an education in reality no university could ever provide. After an experience like that, nothing looks the same; not even home.

The Navy life is a hard one. The days are long and arduous. The separations from loved ones are difficult and all-too frequent. While that kind of life is hard enough on the sailor, it is even more difficult for the wives and children left behind.

It is often said that the hardest job in the Navy is that of a Navy Wife. For them, the challenges of life must be faced alone, often for months at a time, from the mundane logistics of getting the kids where they need to be, to that long, terrifying—and lonely-night in the emergency room, the pressure is unrelenting. There is never a day off. Ladies, we are awed by your strength and dedication. And we also know that whatever we have accomplished in our lives, we could not have done it without your unfaltering faith and support. Being a Navy Wife requires a special kind of courage; and a love that knows no bounds.

Every day in uniform is an exercise in being pushed to the limits, only to discover that we had far more capability than we ever imagined. In meeting those challenges head-on, a person grows in ways that takes years to fully appreciate.

The relationships born in such a crucible are in many ways the most valuable and enduring. Like steel, the most durable friendships are those formed in the hottest fire. That shared sense of adventure and adversity forges links that endure across the decades. Regardless of the divergent paths our lives may have taken since; we remain bonded by that shared experience.

Remarkably, even though decades hae separated our last encounters, we've picked up right where we left off, as effortlessly and comfortably as sliding into an old pair of blue jeans. We've discovered the singular value of real friendship; that it is utterly unaffected by time or distance. We recall with great glee the fun we had. we remember with quiet pride the service we rendered. And we share a sense of loss in the memory of our shipmates who, all too soon it seems, have passed from this life.

A reunion of veterans is, I think, an all-too-brief re-visitation with the past. The memories come flooding back; stories are told and re-told, admittedly with a somewhat carefree application of the truth. We tell tales like The Great Cookie Caper, OI Division’s Tijuana Massacre, The Big Fish, The Wachter Whale Encounter, Bob Zambone’s Midnight Swim, and the Steel Beach Picnic, cooking steaks while the crew of a Soviet AGI watched and drooled from close aboard…downwind. And, of course, the object lesson provided by OS2 Kevin Andre Perkins of why it is so important to hit the head BEFORE General Quarters. DC Central will not break watertight integrity, even when you’re about to break yours.

Serving in uniform also tends to change our view of that which most people take utterly for granted: Our own very remarkable country.

It is a sad reality that freedom and liberty will always be taken for granted by those who have never experienced anything less, nor have ever had to defend it. Yet we who have served have seen firsthand what happens when a nation of people lose control over their government. July 4th will never be just a summer holiday. Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day all mean more to us than to others, for we know personally the price that was paid; the cost that was exacted in order to ensure the survival and success of liberty.

Throughout the history of the world, the blood of soldiers and sailors has been expended for all the wrong reasons. Yet, the history of the United States is unique. Yes, we’ve had to defend our own soil from time to time. But what is surprising is the number of times we have spent our blood defending, not our soil, but someone else’s; not our freedom, but the dream of liberty throughout the world.

According to the American Battle Monuments Commission, there are 24 cemeteries in 10 different countries overseas, containing the graves of almost 125,000 American soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and guardsman. In addition, there are memorials for some 94,000 service members who remain officially missing.

And we must add to those totals at least 100,000 American sailors who found their final rest in the depths of the sea, some who were formally buried with full honors, others who went to the depths along with the broken remains of their ships, submarines, and planes. No other nation in history has shed so much blood in defense of others, and for the cause of freedom.

Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in a speech to some mutinous soldiers prior to the Battle of Gettysburg is said to have observed,

“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history,
you'll see men fight for pay, for women, or some other kind of loot.
They fight for land, or because a king makes them,
or just because they like killing.
But we're here for something new.
This hasn't happened much in the history of the world.
We are an army out to set other men free.”

That goal, to set others free, has defined the roles played by America’s military, especially the Navy. It is an ideal, not ordered by the U.S. government, but one willed by the American people. Those who have worn this nation’s uniform have, by choice, embraced that mandate, fulfilling this nation's promise that America does not fight for riches, power, or land. America fights for freedom; everyone’s freedom.

We wore the uniform of our country; we carried the flag to the far reaches of the world. In so doing, we brought the light of possibility and hope to those who had neither. To this day, I cannot imagine a higher calling.

One thing common to all who served was the clear understanding of honor. We learned it; we lived it; we breathed it. We judged each other, and more importantly, ourselves by that unyielding standard. Over the years, we came to understand that of everything we value, honor is the most important. Life may take from us our wealth, our position, and our possessions. But as long as we retain our honor, we are rich beyond measure.

It is therefore fitting that we served aboard a ship named for a sailor whose last act on this earth was one of the highest honor and the greatest courage. Reading the citation that went along with David Ouellet’s Medal of Honor, we find that it was his alertness and dedication to duty that allowed his vessel to close and engage the enemy. And during that fight, when he saw a grenade arcing their way, he left a secure position, warned his shipmates, pushed the Boat Captain out of danger, and saved his crew by absorbing the blast with his own body.

David Ouellet was 22 years old, the story of his life barely written. I’m certain that he had dreams and hopes; plans for the future. But in that moment of penultimate choice, seeing his shipmates in danger, he laid aside his entire future without hesitation in order to save lives.

“Greater love hath no man than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.”

I think most of us, at one time, have remembered ourselves at 22 years old and wondered if we could have been so courageous; been capable of that much love.

David G. Ouellet is, to us, more than just another bluejacket; more than just the name of our ship. He was to us the ideal of honor; valor; sacrifice; service; and commitment; the ideal which we all strove. It was his example that inspired us all.

We gathered here this weekend for a variety of reasons. Whatever we were seeking, perhaps what we found here was the memory of our youth. For a few brief, precious hours, we became young again; tough, strong, full of piss ‘n’ vinegar. And although we honor the perspective of years as a gift of wisdom, together, we look back on our time in uniform and our service Fast Frigage number 1077; USS OUELLET; the finest Gray lady in the Pacific Fleet, knowing that of the countless days of our life’s journey, those were our finest hours.
“But if it be a sin to covet honor,
I am the most offending soul alive.
I would not lose so great an honor
As one man more would share from me
We few...
we happy few…
We band of brothers.”
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