Thank you so much to the Veteran’s Commission for organizing this event again, as you do every year. Amsterdam is grateful for the work you do on behalf of the Veterans of our community year round – from the careful tending of our monuments to continuous advocacy on behalf of those that have served our country so well.
The globe has spun one more time around the sun and God has provided us another late-Spring day to gather together, as community and as family. The dogwood and azaleas are blooming, phlox dance amongst the tall grasses in the fields, the trees have greened with the hope of budding leaves, and the American flag drifts lightly with each haunting breeze. Note that the air is laden with a dense closeness in the atmosphere. It is heavy with tears for our loss. It is as if this saturated air bears the weight of our communal heart, because each name etched into a memorial wall or granite stone, each bed left unfilled, each boy or girl that was lost, and each heart that was broken is shared by us all as family. We are touched by each individual passing, because we are have sent our finest into battle and they will not return to taste the promise of our future.
This is a loss that passes down through time.
The Memorial Day tradition was started 145 years ago in Waterloo, NY, when residents gathered to mourn those that had died in the bloody conflict known as the Civil War. Then called Grave Decoration Day, the entire village was draped in evergreen and black streamers. Women wept inconsolably as marching veterans lead a procession of grief to each of the three village cemeteries. The intensity of that grief has lingered with the weathered gravestones, passes through time, and mingles with the terrible price we paid in World War I and World War II, in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We continue to pay in lives today around the world. We must not forget this sacrifice. We must not forget those fallen or the suffering of their families. And we must mourn for our loss, for history has been changed by war, and though we have managed to go on, violence has silenced brave, unique and loving voices. Each individual loss splintered through families, neighborhoods, states and our nation. Generations have been irrevocably altered like the sides of mountains quarried for stone.
This is clearly illustrated by the story of Sgt. First Class Paul Ray Smith, who at age 33 died in a sudden storm of Iraqi fire while protecting his men. Sgt. Smith jumped on a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on an abandoned truck and fired at three Iraqi positions, while single-handedly providing cover so his outnumbered soldiers could escape. 100 men made it to safety. In a moment that was both heroic and horrific, Smith was shot in the neck and killed. Just hours before his death, he penned the following letter to his mother, “As I sit here getting ready to go to war once again, I realize that I have left some things left unsaid. I love you and I don’t want you to worry. …There are two ways to come home: stepping off the plane, and being carried off the plane. It doesn’t matter how I come home, because I am prepared to give all that I am, to insure that all my boys make it home.”
The courage shown in that letter is at once unbearable and is all that his family, and we, must cling to. Though Sgt. Smith has been posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, he will never walk his daughter down the aisle, or teach his son to shave, or hold a grandchild on his knee. And his family’s heart has broken.
This nation has lost hundreds of thousands of like souls through the ages and we must never forget that they gave everything so that we would live our lives to the fullest. We must never forget that these individuals, with lives to realize and loves that were timeless, died as soldiers fighting for the principles that make our country great… liberty, honor, valor, commitment, and selfless service to others.
I say to you again that we must remember that what we honor are not faceless names. These were the faithful husbands, sisters, nephews, fathers, sons, neighbors and friends, most barely out of school, barely kissed, that had gone off from so many different circumstances to meet a common end, all in service to us.
The enormity of our loss is too important to blithely pass by. Our city and country have lost more than we can know. What we have lost can never be regained… the glances, the gentle touches, smiles, children, comedy, commerce, creativity, ingenuity, determination and love.
Love, most of all.
We must understand this loss with the constricted heart of someone receiving first word that their boy will never return… the agony of a mother that will never hold her child again, a father that will not pass on the keys to the business or applaud at a graduation, a child that will not remember a parent’s laugh by the time they are ten. We must be breathless in our knowing. We must know the full weight of silence.
And yet, we must know gratitude. For God has granted us not only those that have given their lives for our peace and prosperity, but a community that honors our dead, and veterans that continue to dutifully care for the memories of our fallen heroes.
These veterans are the living embodiment of Amsterdam’s service to the defense of liberty and the nation, representatives who served in all the wars of living memory. They stand here, not just in their own right, but also for all those who cannot.
Among them you can read the depth and breath of Amsterdam’s contributions: in one case not only as father and son, but as a marine who served at the Battle of Saipan in World War II, and his son, the naval officer who served half a century later on the USS Saipan, named in honor of the valor and sacrifice of those who fought at Saipan, including Company G from the Armory. We will honor these men and others that had served so proudly by awarding them the Amsterdam Veteran Service Medal. To these veteran men and women, we owe our continued thanks and support.
Lastly, to those that proudly wear our uniform and honor our flag around the world today, we owe our praise and deepest appreciation. To those many fine soldiers, we all pray, come back to us safely in God’s hands.
And now, in our stillness and our reverie, during the arresting 24 notes of the bugle call of “Taps”, let us recall all that we have lost and all that we hold dear and gather closer as a community in our love, in our pain, and in our gratitude.