Copyright © 2003 by Ralph Couey
This is a very special night. We have all gathered here as one to welcome home America’s truest heroes. As special as this moment is for us, I know this moment is even more precious and priceless for you who have returned from the theater of war. For tonight, the stars shine in friendly skies; the wind blows gently down familiar streets; the sun has cast a familiar shadow upon the doorstep; and tonight, we who have stood safely behind the protective wall of your courageous service hold you in a warm, affectionate, and mutual embrace. Tonight we as a family, we as a community, we as a nation say to you: Welcome Home.
Tonight we also remember the fallen. For far too many families, there will be no joyous homecoming; only the memories of the loved and the lost. There are no possible words, no magic phrases that could possibly ease the pain they feel. For the husband or wife looking at a wedding ring through a veil of tears; for the parents who stand in the doorway of a silent, empty bedroom; for the child who struggles to understand why Daddy or Mommy aren’t coming home; for the friends, the co-workers, the neighbors who now feel that aching void in their lives; for all of them, we as a nation share this grief. In time, hopefully, understanding will come. Meaning will be revealed.
Never have the words of Abraham Lincoln been more poignant:
“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.”
It is natural to mourn. However, let us also celebrate their lives, for in the too-short time they were here, they touched and honored us all. That is a gift worth celebrating. All over this country there are memorials of granite and marble to those who have given their lives for freedom. But I’ve always felt that the best memorial to those who went before is the purpose of the lives of those who continue on. If we take the best of what they were and make it the best of what we can be, then a part of those who sacrificed will continue to live on through us. That memorial is not only important to us as individuals; it is absolutely vital to us as a nation.
There have been many words spoken and written of the great thing these heroes have accomplished. For me, it is difficult to articulate what I truly feel. Let me say to you that in the simplest of terms, you have upheld justice. You have fought for the freedom of tens of millions of innocent people. Each day as the sun rises, the power of its glow dims beside the new light that shines in the eyes and hearts of a Free People.
These brave servicemen and women have stood for us. It is now time for us to stand for them so that the next time our friends and loved ones have to go to defend that wall between tyranny and freedom they will go with the firm knowledge and full faith believing that they do not stand alone!
Throughout the history of the United States, many millions of her citizens have donned a uniform and carried the flag. They served in times of war, in times of peace, and times of great international tension. They served with dignity, honor and courage. Yet, they came from ordinary backgrounds; they were the kids next door or down the block. They pumped gas, bagged groceries, drove tractors, perhaps raised a little hell on Saturday night. But when exposed to battle, some of these ordinary people found something quite extraordinary inside them. I found myself looking through the citations of those who had earned this nation’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
People like PFC John L. Barkley of the Army’s 3rd Division who in World War I, on his own initiative, repaired a captured German machine gun, mounted it in a disabled French tank, and after waiting through a heavy artillery barrage, single-handedly broke up a major German counterattack. He was 21 years old.
Then there was Ensign Thomas J. Ryan, U.S. Navy, who was in Yokohama, Japan during the terrible earthquake of 1923. Ensign Ryan entered the burning Grand Hotel and pulled a woman out, saving her life. He was 22 years old.
In World War II, Lt. Daniel K. Inouye who despite being wounded by a sniper and having his right arm shattered by a grenade while single-handedly taking out two machine gun nests, refused evacuation and continued to lead his platoon through a major attack. He was 21 years old, and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because Lt. Inouye survived to become Senator Daniel K. Inouye.
During the Korean conflict, Marine Corporal Joe Vittori, along with two volunteers, rushed into the midst of a Chinese attack, engaged them in hand-to-hand combat to the extent that it unnerved the entire Chinese attack force. Later, he took up a position guarding a machine gun nest and while his fellow soldiers fell around him, he leapt from foxhole to foxhole simulating a much greater force in that line, denying the enemy physical occupation of the position. Cpl Vittori gallantly gave his life for his country. He was 22 years old.
And then during Vietnam, Navy Seaman David G. Ouellet, a gunner on a river patrol boat which was making a high-speed run on the Mekong River, Ouellet saw a grenade arcing through the air towards his boat. He left the safety of his armored gun position and ran aft, shouting for his shipmates to take cover. He pushed the boat captain onto the deck and as the grenade detonated, he placed his body between the blast and the rest of his crew. Seaman Ouellet was 22 years old.
These were people from ordinary backgrounds; they were not the sons of famous people, nor did they enjoy any personal notoriety outside their particular units. Growing up in their hometowns, none of them were probably thought of as particularly brave or daring. Yet, when desperate circumstances were thrust upon them, they responded. They rendered aid when needed, engaged the enemy when required, and assumed leadership when none was available. These men were all 23 years old or younger. Why would anyone at that stage in life, with their whole futures ahead of them; the story of their lives as yet unwritten, do these heroic things? It is because people from a country steeped in freedom, justice, and equality do these things not because they are ordered or threatened to do so, but because they freely CHOOSE to do so. It is that pioneering spirit, that never-say-die attitude, that absolute fearlessness in the face of challenge and adversity that truly makes us a great people. We are Americans! We do NOT surrender! We do not surrender to adversity! We do not surrender to failure! And we will NEVER surrender to fear!
These magnificent men and women standing before us tonight have chosen freely to serve the United States and the cause of freedom wherever it is threatened. They are the living embodiment of that spirit so eloquently described by President John F. Kennedy:
“Let every nation know whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price,
bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, and oppose any foe,
in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
This is who and what we are! We do not fight for power! We do not fight for conquest! We do not fight for oil! We WILL fight for freedom! We WILL fight for justice! And we WILL fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.
President Reagan understood what we as a nation of free people are capable of.
"I believe we, the Americans of today, are ready to act worthy of ourselves,
ready to do what must be done to ensure happiness and liberty
for ourselves, our children and our children's children.
We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope
for those who do not now have freedom.
As for the enemies of freedom, they will be reminded
that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people.
We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it;
but we will not surrender for it--now or ever."
My friends, America is not only a place. It is a set of ideas. It is a people born and bred to freedom and justice. It is a nation of immigrants and people descended from immigrants who courageously risked all they had, in order to come here. It is a place where people of a thousand different heritages and backgrounds live peacefully with one another. It is a nation slow to anger, but swift and sure in actions. It is a land of destiny populated by a people who have never been afraid to dream.
Once again, I turn to the words of the Great Communicator:
"We're entering our third century now,
but it's wrong to judge our nation by its Years.
The calendar can't measure America
because we were meant to be an endless experiment in freedom
with no limit to our reaches, no boundaries to what we can do,
no end point to our hopes."
"Why is the Constitution of the United States so exceptional?
Well, the difference is so small that it almost escapes you
- but it's so great it tells you the whole story in just three words:
We the people."
Tonight, We the People, stand together in pride; Pride in our history; pride in our nation; pride in our military; pride in our leaders. To those of you whom we honor this night, we say “Thank You.” Thank you for the freedoms you have helped to preserve. Thank you for your strength and courage on the battlefield, and your compassion for the defeated. Thank you for showing to a joyous and liberated people, the best part of yourselves, which is also the best part of America. Around the world, America will once again be hailed as a great nation. For the world has seen that greatness in you.
You are our heroes.
You are our sons and daughters; brothers and sisters; our fathers and mothers; our cousins, nieces and nephews!
You are us!
We are you;
We are all: One nation, under God; Indivisible; With liberty and justice. For All!