Major General Kelly’s remarks on this day.
MEMORIAL DAY 25 MAY 2008
First, a few statistics to ponder. There are twenty-five million living American veterans. Since General George Washington commanded the Continental Army forty-two million Americans have served the colors. A million have been killed in its defense. Another million and a half wounded. When most of us think about military cemeteries the first thought that comes to mind is Arlington National in Washington, but there are many, many more in the U.S. Most Americans also don’t know there are 24 American cemeteries maintained overseas with 125,000 graves of our fallen—61,000 in France alone—the result of two wars that saved Europe and the world from horrors unimaginable to Americans today; unimaginable, that is, unless you are a veteran who have seen the terrible face of war so those who remained safe in America, and those yet unborn, would never have to. There are also memorials overseas to an additional 94,000 Americans who were lost at sea, or their remains never recovered from battlefields around the globe. With all this service and loss, we as Americans can be proud of the kind of people we are as we have never retained a square foot of any country we have defeated, we possess no empire, nor have we enslaved a single human being. On the contrary, billions across the planet are today—and billions yet unborn—live free because our veterans have fought and died, and, once peace achieved, we’ve rebuilt destroyed cities, economies, and societies.
Memorial Day was established three years after our terrible Civil War that finally established what kind of nation we would be. A war in which 600,000 young Americans—North and South—perished. For a century the day continued to mean visiting and decorating graves or town-square memorials to those who died serving our great nation, and celebrating with parades and civic events. Americans kept the day quiet pausing to remember, at least for a little while, the kind of men and women they were who gave the last full measure, and the immensity of the sacrifice they made for those who remained protected at home.
Americans should not forget this weekend or any weekend as they relax with a few days off that the country is at war, and a new Greatest Generation is fighting a merciless enemy on their behalf in the terrible heat of Iraq, and in the mountains of Afghanistan. Like it or not America is engaged in a war today against an enemy that is savage, offers no quarter, whose only objectives are to either kill every one of our families in our homeland, or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that rational men and women can understand. Given the opportunity to do another 9/11, our vicious enemy would do it today, tomorrow and everyday thereafter. I don’t know why they hate us, and I frankly don’t care and they can all go to hell, but they do hate us and are driven irrationally to our destruction. The best way to fight them is somewhere else and that is why we are here. For whatever reason they want to destroy our way of life our countrymen at home should be on their knees everyday thanking God we still have enough young people in America today willing to take up the fight as our Veterans did from the earliest days of our nation.
They should know that they are protected today by men and women as good as have ever served; as good today as their fathers were in Vietnam, and their grandfathers were in Korea and World War II. In this my third tour in Iraq I have never seen an American hesitate, or do anything other than lean into the danger and, with no apparent fear of death or injury, take the fight to the enemies of our way of life. As anyone who has ever experienced combat knows, and many of you do, when it starts, when the explosions and tracers are everywhere and the calls for the Corpsman or medic are screamed from the throats of men who know they are dying—when seconds seem like hours and it all becomes slow motion and fast forward at the same time—everything in one’s survival instinct says stop, get down, save yourself —yet you don’t. When no one would call you coward for cowering behind a wall or in a hole looking to your own self preservation, none of you do. It doesn’t matter if it’s an IED, a suicide bomber, mortar attack, fighting in the upstairs room of a house, or all of it at once—America should know you fight today in the same way our warriors have since the Revolution.
The wonderful thing about America’s Armed Forces is that none of us are born killers. On the contrary we are good and decent Americans mostly from the neighborhoods of America’s cities, and small towns. Almost all come from “salt of the earth” working class homes, and more often than not are the sons and daughters of cops and firemen, factory and service workers, and farmers. Most of us delivered papers, stocked shelves in the grocery store, played Little League baseball and pickup hockey in the local rink, and served Mass on Sunday morning. Some are former athletes, and many “couch potatoes” who drove our cars and motorcycles too fast, and blasted our music louder than perhaps we should have. We are all ordinary people performing remarkable acts of bravery and selfless acts of devotion to a cause bigger than ourselves—and for millions who will never know our names. Any one of us could have all stayed in school or gone another way, but yet we chose to serve knowing full well Iraq and Afghanistan was in our future. You did not avoid the most basic and cherished responsibility of a citizen—to defend the nation and its people—on the contrary, you went after it. You did not fail in life which the chattering class back home likes to believe is why you chose to serve and risk dying for the nation, but, rather, are the best our nation produces and have consciously put every American at home above your own self interest. You are all heroes and like many Veterans throughout our history many of us have endured things—sights, sounds and horrors—that will haunt us for the rest of our lives. I know I find comfort that because I am here those I love and have sworn to protect will never have to deal with memories so terrible. I hope you who have seen these things have the same sense of purpose and balance when you relive the scenes of violence, and of decisions made.
America’s Armed Forces today know the price of being the finest men and women this nation has to offer, and pay it we do everyday in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than four thousand of us have died in this war, and ten-times this number have been wounded. And the sacrifice continues as three Americans have gone to God since we all went to bed last night and slept free and protected. Their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, wives, husbands, and fiancés are sitting in their living rooms right now with casualty officers learning the true price of freedom, and are only just beginning a lifelong struggle of dealing with the pain and loss of someone so dear, but they are not victims as they knew what they were about and were doing what they wanted to do. Many of today’s self-proclaimed experts and media commentators endeavor to make them out to be victims but they are wrong, and this only detracts from the decision these patriots made to step forward and protect the country that has given so much to all of us. We who are serving, and have served, demand not to be categorized as victims—we are not. Those with less of a sense of service to the nation never understand it when strong and committed men and women stand tall and firm against our enemies, just as they can’t begin to understand the price paid so they and their families can sleep safe and free at night—the protected never do. What the experts, commentators, and elites are missing, what they will also never understand, is the sense of commitment, joy, and honor, of serving the nation in its uniform, but every American Veteran, and their loved ones who support them and fear for them everyday, do understand.
We should all be confident that this experiment in democracy we call America will forever remain the “land of the free and home of the brave” so long as we never run out of tough young Americans willing to look beyond their own self interest and comfortable lives, and go into the darkest and most dangerous places on earth to hunt down, and kill, those who would do us harm.
In closing I wanted to share a story that you may not be aware of that took place only a few miles from here in Ramadi. On 22 April 2nd Battalion 8th Marines and 1st Battalion, 9th Marines were in the process of turning over a Joint Security Station Nasser. It’s in the Sophia district of Ramadi, and was once the center of the insurgency in that city. Two Marines who barely knew each other as one was coming and the other going were standing guard at the Entry Control Point (ECP): their names were Jonathan Yale and Jordan Haerter. At 0745, and without warning, a large truck accelerated towards the ECP careening off the protective serpentine. Both must have understood on instinct what was happening as in less then a second they went to the guns and opened fire until the massive 2,000lb blast took their lives—but the suicide bomber never passed the post they protected, and 50 other Marines and perhaps as many police didn’t die that day inside the JSS. I spoke to several Iraqi police eyewitness and they all told the same story, but one more emotionally than the others. He said no sane man would have stood there directly in the path of a speeding truck firing their weapons—yet two did. His officers, some as close as ten feet initially from the Marines, fired and ran when it was obvious the truck could not be stopped—and they survived. The Marines stood their ground and stopped the truck before it detonated, and saved the lives of their buddies.
A sacred duty of every commander in combat, yet the one we dread the most, is writing letters home to families who have lost a son or a daughter. I wanted to close by reading you a letter I wrote that night to the mother of one of those two heroes that for me sums up who and what we are as warriors and veterans, why we serve, and how we will remember each other.
22 April 2008
I know there is nothing I can write tonight that will help you deal with the loss of your son Jonathan. I do hope you can find some comfort as I try to help you understand what he was doing for every American when he was taken from us all. He was standing watch on a nameless side street in Ramadi at the entrance of a compound that housed a large number of Marines, Iraqi Police, and civilians. In the early morning a truck turned down towards the entrance and ignored the visual warnings he gave to stop. Jonathan and the Marine he was with must have sensed immediately what was taking place as they went to the guns quickly and fired a very high volume of automatic weapons fire undoubtedly killing the suicide driver, but not before he detonated the massive blast that took their lives. His fellow Marines did what Marines have done from the beginning of our history, something they do almost without thinking and always without hesitation—they risked their own lives to save his, but he was already gone to God. Mrs. Pride because of your son and that other Marine nearly fifty other American families are not mourning tonight; their son’s lives were saved by two Marines who would not abandon their post even to the point of death.
I did not know your son Mrs. Pride, but I am sure he was just like every Marine I have known in the three decades and more that I have served. Like my own two sons who are Marines and have served here in this war, I bet he was a good looking young man, fun loving, into sports and a good son—but not perfect—boys never are. He was also different Mrs. Pride, because he chose to leave the comfortable and safe confines of his home and walk a different path than all the rest. The path he chose led him to be one of the nations finest, to be a Marine. When he did not have to raise his right hand and swear before his God to serve and protect this nation and its people, he did just that. We all owe him an eternal debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. We also owe you, Tammy, and all who loved him a debt—one that can never be settled.
I have 25,000 Marines under my care here in Iraq, and I fear for their lives every minute of every day as if they were my own. They are out there everyday and every night patrolling the most dangerous places on earth for millions of people at home they do not even know. In times of weakness I wonder why they come, young men like Jonathan, why they come when no one makes them. When everything in our society seems to say “what’s in it for me,” those like your son think of others—not themselves. I did not know your son Mrs. Pride, but I will never forget him. I will keep him in my thoughts and prayers for the rest of my life.
With deepest sympathy,
JOHN F. KELLY
Major General, U.S. Marine Corps
I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward)