This past Friday I had the great opportunity of attending the 12th Annual American Veterans Center Conference at the Navy Memorial in Washington DC. With its mission to “preserve and promote the legacy of America’s servicemen and women from every generation,” the American Veterans Center had an amazing array of speakers. Moreover, my fellow attendees ranging from World War II veterans to JROTC high school students demonstrated the center was remaining true to its motto, “From the greatest generation to the latest generation,” although GEN Petraeus would later challenge this notion.

The day started with a panel on the current operations of SeaBees. It’s really quite amazing to see all the work that’s being done by this small force 16,000. CDR Odenthal, Assistant Chief of Staff for Logistics, First Naval Construction Division, spoke about his time in Southwest Asia where SeaBees served in 13 countries on 4 continents. Now that’s keeping busy! During their time in Asia, SeaBees were responsible for building schools, clinics, and other structures to satisfy local needs. During the Q&A portion, one audience member asked, “Who provides security for you while you’re building?” Those who are familiar with the SeaBees know they build and fight, but this question highlighted to me just how incredible their capabilities are.

GEN Petraeus spoke next. FbL at The Castle Argghhh! has already given a complete play-by-play of GEN Petraeus’s talk and I won’t repeat it here. The most interesting point GEN Petraeus made was regarding the surge of 2007. In his opinion this was most importantly a “surge of ideas not just troops.” Ideas such as living in the community, instead of only in the large, luxorious bases went a far way in GEN Petraeus’s opinion. For example, Coalition Forces took to 77 additional locations in Baghdad–77 of the most violent spots. GEN Petraeus emphasized that the key to success in Iraq was the increased risk we were willing to take, a sentiment echoed by the battalion commanders at the Counterinsurgency Leadership event I attended in September.

GEN Petraeus also spoke fondly of today’s servicemember. While the event used the phrase “From the Greatest Generation…to the latest generation,” GEN Petraeus suggested that sacrifices and efforts of the newest generation have deemed the worthy of the title “the Next Greatest Generation.”

It was extremely humbling to witness the panel of Marines who fought on Iwo Jima. It was also interesting to see how each of them shared a different impression of the battle. COL Caldwell, who was the commanding officer of F Co., 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines, which suffered the highest KIA rate of any unit in Marine Corps history, was present. COL Caldwell recalled one incident in which a Japanese soldier came running ablaze in fire at his men. The soldier was promptly shot by Caldwell’s men and upon searching his body, the Marines found a picture of the man with his five children standing at attention. This scene caused Caldwell’s “salty,” tough gunnery sergeant to break down in tears. Ralph Griffiths was a veteran of E Company, 28th Marines and served with the flag raisers of Iwo Jima. Unfortunately, he was wounded by the same shell which killed flag raisers Sgt. Strank and Cpl. Block. He also spoke of how hellish the island itself was.

After COL Caldwell and Mr. Griffiths spoke, Mr. Donald Mates and Mr. James White recounted their time together on Iwo. Part of an eight man team sent to disable Japanese mortars, White was credited with giving aid to a severely wounded Mates as well as beating back a Japanese attack. Laughter broke out in the audience as White recounted dispatching Japanese soldier after soldier. It was quite a different tone than the talks by COL Caldwell and Mr. Griffiths!

For me one of the most interesting moments of the day was Maj. Theodore Van Kirk’s presentation. As the navigator of the Enola Gay, Maj. Van Kirk dismissed any arguments against the dropping of the bomb. While he noted the nuclear bomb and war are terrible things, it was his firm belief that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved Japanese and American lives. Members of the audience who lived through World War II broke out into applause. In an academic setting it’s great to discuss President Truman’s decision, but as I sat there it became even more clear that this was the right decision. It ended a war through which many members of the audience suffered.

History and heritage seemed much more alive and personal to me, a midshipman, as the veterans of wars past and present shared their experiences at the American Veterans Center’s Conference. It was a fulfilling experience and a great reminder of the wisdom our veterans have to share.

———– has put video of the event online:
Click here to watch the remarks by the veterans of Iwo Jima. The first speaker is COL Caldwell, followed by Mr. Donald Mates.

Here for remarks by GEN Petraeus and here for a presentation by LT Thrun of the Civil Engineering Corps who served on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan.

Posted by Jeffrey Withington in History, Marine Corps, Navy

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  • The Bunny

    I agree with Midn. Withington — this conference was chock full of fascinating, captivating, intimate, first person accounts of veterans’ experiences in war “from the Greatest Generation to the Latest Generation.” I watched it gavel to gavel and was captivated. Don’t miss next year’s conference!

  • FbL

    “…fascinating, captivating, intimate, first person accounts…”

    Those are exactly the right adjectives. It was an amazing experience, and considering this isn’t the first time the Center has done it, I can’t imagine next year being any less wonderful. I certainly hope to be there!

    MIDN, thanks for the link! I’ll be continuing to add more articles about the event–there’s so much to cover that I wish I’d had days to do nothing but write reports!