Veteran's Day 1997

Brian B. Riley
Lt. USMC (ret)

I delivered this speech as the keynote address on Sunday 9 Nov 1997 in the town of Huntington, Vermont, where a group of Boy Scouts has gotten together and refurbished/restored the town's Veteran's memorial. The affair is a rededication of the memorial and was attended by citizens, scouts, several state assembly persons and town officials and will feature A Highland Piper, a Revolutionary War Fife and Drum Corps, a Civil War Honor Guard and several representatives of VFW groups from around the state. Despite hideous weather (temperature in the 40's and wind driven rain) many people turned out to participate in and view the parade. Once again, I was gratified that my words were so well accepted. This message is no less easy to digest than it is to deliver.

(This is, I hope, an improved version of the speech I gave on Memorial Day '97 in Underhill, Vermont)

Ladies and gentlemen of Huntington, we who have served in the legions at the far reaches of the empire salute you this day on which you are honoring us. In particular we would salute these scouts who have worked so hard to restore your veteran's memorial.

These days so much of the younger generation seems disappointing. But across that fabric of darkness there are a number of pinpoints of light. One such pinpoint is this Boy Scout Troop #645 ... I work up at the high school with Pete Whitaker, the Scoutmaster. Since its inception he has talked so long and with such pride about these boys that I had to figure that either they were some pretty extraordinary young men or that Pete was delusional. From what I see here today, I can say that Pete's sanity is no longer in question (at least not on that count)

How does this happen to be, when so many of their peers are languishing in front of TV's, experimenting with mind altering substances and/or developing their rap sheets in lieu of a resume. It's simple really ... take one of these young men home and you will meet parents who won't accept "nothing much" as a valid answer to "what did you learn in school today?" Parents who really do know where their child is at any given time and parents who do not hand out this weeks allowance based on last weeks oxygen consumption. This is a farming community. You all know well that you reap what you sow ... the parents and mentors of these boys have a harvest of which they can be proud.

Every year on or about the Thirtieth of May we honor the men who have died on the fields of battle. Then, in the Fall, on the anniversary of the Armistice of the "war to end all wars" we are supposed to honor all Veterans. Everybody gets Memorial Day off, but unless you are a Federal Employee or live here in Huntington, you wouldn't know it was Veteran's Day if K-mart didn't name a "Blue Light Special" after it.

For many years I had not attended any Memorial Day or Veteran's Day observances. Then a few years ago at the urging of the local VFW Commander I started marching in the Memorial Day Parade. I stood there for three years, 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!

Two years ago, my life unraveled. Twenty five odd years of stuffing things under the rug yielded to the reality "there's no more room under the rug." In time, thanks to some pretty special guys down at Dorset Street Vet Center, my life came back together and I finally knew what it was that needed saying! Last May, at the Underhill-Jericho Parade, I got my first chance to say it right and I will thank you now for giving me the opportunity to say it better.

What I am going to tell you is that our Memorial Day's have been incomplete; year after year after year a vast segment of men have lain forgotten ... unrecognized ...

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 make some other poor son of a bitch die for his!" ... Does that statement leave 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 that they will desist and we can then return to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The great unspoken truth, that no one, not anyone, wants to talk about, 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; they died, not at Lexington nor Yorktown nor New Orleans, not at the Alamo nor Chapultepec; they didn't fall at Antietam or Gettysburg, nor on Flanders Fields nor 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 on the long frozen march from 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; Their bodies lay mangled in twisted car wrecks and beneath tall places; 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 nonexistent hygiene; so many were left and forgotten in old age homes ... and scores died desperately 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.

How far would I 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? How many of these men have you dismissed with the comment "Why don't you get on with your life, the war's been over for years?"

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. 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 Veteran's and Memorial Days as did their brothers in arms who didn't come home from the fields of battle.

Ladies and gentlemen of Huntington, we who have served in the legions at the far reaches of the empire salute you. Call upon us again and again we will serve. Most of us would rather go again back into the hellfire than expose our sons and yours to the plague of war. If it must be again, we ask of you only to make sure this time to tell the suits in Washington that our lives have value and they should not be spent as cheaply as they have been in the past.

Thank you ...

Brian B. Riley Lt USMC(ret)
2nd Platoon, Company B
1st Reconnaissance Battalion
1st Marine Division
DaNang, RVN '68-'69

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