[Reprinted in Full with permission]
The following is a speech I gave last night at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City where I humbly accepted this year’s Intrepid Freedom Award. The speech gives some of my thoughts on Memorial Day through letters written by some of the fallen and their families. Please share with me your reflections on this Memorial Day weekend.
“The Words They Leave To Us”
I want to spend my few minutes tonight with you giving voice to those who cannot be with us. I want to share with you the voices of the fallen and their families.
I want to give voice to the men and women who have given their lives for this nation.
Together, across the years of our nation’s history, they answered the call.
They stood the watch.
They looked neither left nor right.
They did not search for an exit.
They walked steadily and unafraid into mortal danger, knowing all the risks and all the costs.
On rolling ships at sea … on dusty streets under a burning sun …in the high mountain passes … and in the stormy skies … they said simply and bravely, “I will go.”
So many … too many … were lost to us forever.
But in their letters, and those of their loved ones, written in the last days of their lives, there is majesty and honesty and humility that deserve our attention as we approach this Memorial Day.
So tonight, I’d simply like to share with you excerpts from several timeless letters—words written by our nation’s military heroes and their families…who have borne this great country through times of peril and darkness – who have sacrificed so much…so that we could be here tonight rendering our own salute to freedom.
These are beautiful and sad letters … some of them from grieving parents talking about their lost sons and daughters … others, the “last” letter home that begins with the heart-breaking phrase, “If you are reading this letter, it is because I am gone …”
Let me begin with the Civil War, and a letter written by Major Sullivan Ballou, a 32-year old member of the Second Regiment of Rhode Island Volunteers, who died in the Battle of Bull Run.
He wrote to his wife, Sarah, just five days before the battle that would cost his life:
“My very dear Sarah, the indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more … Sarah: my love for you is deathless.
It seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence could break: and yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield. Never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. Do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.”
The second letter comes from World War I. A grieving father from this very city writes the following about the loss of his son. “It is hard to open the letters from those you love who are dead; but Quentin’s last letters, written during his three weeks at the front, when of his squadron, on average, a man was killed every day, are written with real joy in the ‘great adventure.’ He was engaged to a very beautiful girl, of very fine and high character; it is heartbreaking for her, as well as for his mother. He had his crowded hour, he died at the crest of life, in the glory of the dawn.”
Quentin was a pilot who was shot down and died behind German lines just months before the end of World War I in 1918. The dead son’s full name was Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of former President Theodore Roosevelt, a New York father who lost his beloved son.
Memorial Day, here in this wonderful setting in New York City, would be incomplete without honoring and remembering those who are serving and sacrificing right now: our nation’s youth, America’s sons and daughters, who are fighting yet another battle—struggling to bring peace and freedom to Iraq and Afghanistan—while keeping us all safe from those that would do us harm.
We have lost many brave men and women in Iraq. Army Private First Class Diego Rincon of Georgia wrote his mother a “last letter home.”
“Whether I make it or not, it’s all part of the plan. It can’t be changed, only completed. “Mother” will be the last word I’ll say. Your face will be the last picture that goes through my eyes. I just hope that you’re proud of what I am doing and have faith in my decisions. I will try hard and not give up. I just want to say sorry for anything I have ever done wrong. And I’m doing it all for you, Mom. I love you.”
Another letter from Iraq, this one from US Army Captain Michael MacKinnon, to his young daughter Madison:
“Madison, I’m sorry I broke my promise to you when I said I was coming back. You were the jewel of my life. I don’t think anyone would ever be good enough for you. Stay beautiful, stay sweet. You will always be daddy’s little girl.”
Captain Michael MacKinnon died in October, 2005, in Iraq.
More recently, another father gave voice and image to his son—a Marine Lieutenant lost in today’s conflict in Afghanistan.
“Robert was killed protecting our country, its people, and its values from a terrible and relentless enemy in Afghanistan. We are a broken-hearted but proud family. He was a wonderful and precious boy living a meaningful life. He was in exactly the place he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to do, surrounded by the best men on this earth—his Marines and a Navy Doc.”
This letter was written by a cherished friend of mine, Marine Lieutenant General John Kelly.
* * *
What can we learn from these powerful letters?
To answer that, let me close with excerpts from just one more letter. It was written from Iraq as a “just in case” letter by Private First Class Jesse A. Givens, a letter to be delivered to his wife and children only in the event of his death.
“My family,” he writes, “I never thought that I would be writing a letter like this. I really don’t know where to start. The happiest moments in my life all deal with my little family. I will always have with me the small moments we all shared. The moments when we quit taking life so serious and smiled. The sounds of a beautiful boy’s laughter or the simple nudge of a baby unborn. You will never know how complete you have made me…I did not want to have to write this letter. There is so much more I need to say, so much more I need to share…Please keep my babies safe. Please find it in your heart to forgive me for leaving you alone. . . Teach our babies to live life to the fullest, tell yourself to do the same.
I will always be there with you…Do me a favor, after you tuck the children in, give them hugs and kisses from me. Go outside and look at the stars and count them. Don’t forget to smile.
Love Always, Your husband, Jess.”
The letter was delivered in May 2003, two weeks before the birth of their son and just after his death in combat …
* * *
So again, I ask, what can we take from these letters, so sweet and sad and powerful in their simplicity and honesty?
First, and most importantly, that we are a lucky nation indeed to have such men and women, who say to us, “I will go.”
Second, that their words matter. Their lives had weight and importance. That we read their letters and in events like this, respect them and grieve with their families for their loss. And perhaps most importantly, that we support their families. That is what INTREPID is all about.
Third, a lesson for all of us who go on in this world, safe and protected due to the sacrifice of others: we should live our lives to the fullest.
To that end, I’d like to close on this magical night on board this historic ship by repeating the words of young Private First Class Jess Givens—who will be forever young in our hearts and our prayers. What he has to tell is us far more profound than anything this aging Admiral has to say:
Hug and kiss your children
Go outside and look at the stars
Don’t forget to smile
That is pretty good advice for a Memorial Day … or any day.
In the end, what else really matters?
So let us remember our heroes—those of our past and those of our present who walk among us right now.
Again, this is THEIR award. I am proud only to give voice to them tonight.
God Bless you all and God Bless America.
Adm. James Stavridis
Commander, U.S. European Command and
Supreme Allied Commander, Europe