Ladies and gentlemen;
Until three years ago I hadn't attended a Memorial Day celebration since I was twenty.
Why, I didn't know then, though I do now. You might ask what happened three years
ago? ... have any of YOU ever tried to say "NO" to Richard Becker, our illustrious
So there I stood, these last years, holding the American flag and
listening to the speakers up here; and (no disrespect intended), they were saying the
same sort of things I had heard so many years before and on just about every television
station's coverage of this day's activities. But, I stood there, a man haunted by
a nagging thought that something was missing, that I should get up there and say
it better. But I hadn't the slightest idea what that was!
A little under two years ago, a number of things began happening in my life, such
that by last year, standing here, I knew what it was that needed saying. Alas, someone
else was up here; and I was, again, down there!
This past March, Richard called me
and asked me if I could suggest someone for a speaker. What little modesty I could summon
up prevented me from suggesting myself right then and there; but when he called back
two weeks later and I had no idea whom to suggest, I volunteered myself and found
out that is what he had in mind all along ... Clever, our Richard!
Every year, about this time, we gather together to honor those who have bravely fallen
in battle, never to rise again. Later on, in the Fall, on the anniversary of "the
war to end all wars" we have a day set aside to nominally recognize the rest of those
men we call Veterans ... SUCH RECOGNITION ... our local school district doesn't even
observe it ... heck, most of us wouldn't even remember the day if K-mart didn't
have a 'Blue Light Special' named after it!
What I need to tell you is that our Memorial Day's have been incomplete; year after
year a vast segment of men have lain forgotten ... unrecognized. Let me digress
a moment ...
One of the greatest field generals this country ever produced, George S. Patton Jr.,
once said to his troops "... men, your job is not go out and die for your country,
but to go out and make some other poor son of a bitch die for his!" ...
If that statement
leaves a bad taste in your mouth, it should! In wartime, we send young men in harms way
to take a sufficient number of our enemies' lives so they will desist; and then
we can all return to our normal pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness. But what
is never said and is so easily overlooked is that once a man has hunted men and in turn been
hunted himself, his life is forever changed!
I am asking you to remember millions of veterans who died in the service of our country--died,
not at Antietam or Gettysburg, nor on Flanders Fields or Chateau Thierry; neither
did they die at Bastogne or in the waters at Midway nor on the bloody sands of Iwo Jima; they
did not give up their lives in the frozen regions around the Chosin
Reservoir nor the beaches at Inchon; and not in the steaming jungles at Dien Bien
Phu or Con Thien or Khe San; and they did not die on the sands of Kuwait or in the
flak filled skies over Bagdad ... no, these men came to rest in far less exotic surroundings.
They died, often broke, broken, and alone in filthy back alleys, with needles in
their arms or their bodies lay mangled in twisted car wrecks and beneath tall places or they have
been beaten; they have been abused; they have been shot down by family, friends,
or police, their remains often reeking of tobacco, stale beer, cheap whiskey, malnutrition
and non-existant hygene, and so many were left and forgotten in old age homes ... and scores
died desparately alone though in a crowd of family and friends.
These men didn't have the proper sense of drama to die gloriously on a battlefield
... When THEY were in combat and fell, they rose again, and again, AND AGAIN; they
survived, and THEY came home.
I am very sure that I would not have to go far through this assemblage to find more
than a few people who have said or heard said something like "gee, so and so has
never quite been the same since he came back from ... " How many of these veterans
have made a total shambles of their lives and the lives of those around them. How many of
you remember these veterans with anger, shame, sorrow, regret?
For every man whose life force has ebbed onto the field of battle, a dozen more go
home with their souls irrevocably ripped asunder. Far more precious than their life,
they gave up their immortal souls for their country. But ... unlike Faust, the Devil
gave them scant little in return. They are literally "dead men walking;" and we remember
them, if at all, for their last battles, which they tragically lost.
I am asking you, instead, to remember them with pride for all the battles up to the
last that they won. These men went forth in harms way on your behalf. Whether voluntarily
or in compliance with law, THEY WENT. They deserve the same compassion, understanding, and
remembrance on this and any Memorial Day as did their brothers in arms who
didn't come home from the fields of battle.
Some of you may think that I have exaggerated the impact of war upon the men who fight
in it. Let me leave you with these things to think about:
- Of all the non-postumously awarded Congressional Medals of Honor given during the
VietNam War, by 1989 less than half of those recipients were still alive; most died
by their own hand. Among the survivors number some very angry and very lonely men.
- I can give you big numbers. As of last year The Vet Center, an autonomous arm
of the Department of Veteran's Affairs, whose mission is to counsel veterans, their
families, and their significant others, estimated that nearly one and one half million
of the men who served under arms in Viet Nam are suffering from at least some degree of
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This represents well in excess of 60% of the group.
Within that group the rate of occurrence of PTSD among female Nurses, Army and Navy,
who served in Viet Nam is 100% and among the tunnel rats of the Army and Marine Corps
the rate is 100%.
- Or, I can give you a very personal glimpse--my good friend, Lewis Burwell Puller
Jr., Lt. USMC, who overcame losing both legs and parts of his hands to a booby-trapped
howitzer round. He earned a law degree in Virginia, had and raised a wonderful family, and
wrote a biography that was honored with a Pulitzer prize a few years ago. But
the pains came back; he sank into a morass of drugs and alcohol, and he lost his family.
Dead, just three years now, by his own hand. Lew's death surely began in the jungles of
Quang Nam Province, twenty-nine years ago ... Rest well, dear friend; I hope
you have found the peace you sought.
This is not just a Viet Nam thing. Lew Puller's father was Lieutenant General Lewis B.
Puller USMC(ret). "Chesty" Puller was the greatest fighting Marine this country
has ever seen, having faught in WW I, the various wars in the banana republics, WW
II, and Korea. He was the most decorated man in the history of the Corps; he died, broken
by all the battles and what it finally did to his son.
I could go on for hours ... Again, I ask you that today and on future Memorial Days
that you take time to remember ALL of those who died in the service of their country,
not just the few who fell on the battlefield proper.
Brian B. Riley, Lt USMC(ret)
2nd Platoon, Company B
1st Reconnaissance Battalion
1st Marine Division
DaNang, RVN '68-'69
Copyright © 1997 by Brian B. Riley, All Rights Reserved