We fought to preserve what our forefathers had died for. We picked up our guns to protect our faith, to preserve our liberty. … It was to save our way of life, for our parents and siblings at home, for our children, the children we hoped to have, and for their children.-Walter Ehlers
Adapted from remarks given at an all-school assembly
We have assembled here today to honor all American veterans: those who have gone before us, those who, we are proud to say, stand here with us, and all who have served in the armed forces for the defense of our great country and our common way of life. We owe our veterans a debt of gratitude that cannot easily be repaid, and words, certainly, will not suffice. But we have also assembled this morning to reflect on what it is that we honor together: on the values of courage and self-sacrifice that our veterans exemplify, and that we hold to be worthy of imitation. Veterans Day is a time for us to ask ourselves: Can we, too, have such virtue? Would we be able to withstand the test?
When we hear about the heroic deeds of soldiers, it can be difficult to understand where such moral strength comes from. But I think we can begin to find a common thread when we listen to veterans speaking in their own words:
Jay Vargas, for example, was a major in the Marine Corps who was wounded three times in three days as he led his battalion during the Vietnam War. Years later, he remarked, “What drove me was I cared so much for my Marines. That was my family, and my responsibility was to lead them.”
Harvey Barnum Jr., another Vietnam War veteran and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, said of his heroic actions during the war: “We did what had to be done at the right time. We did it not out of personal aggrandizement but for love of our fellow Marine, or soldier or sailor or airman.”
And Walter Ehlers, an army staff sergeant who stormed Omaha Beach on June 6th, 1944, later wrote: “While we braved [those] then-fortified beaches to beat back Hitler and to liberate Europe, to stop his massacres and to rescue his prisoners, we fought for much more than that. We fought to preserve what our forefathers had died for. We picked up our guns to protect our faith, to preserve our liberty. Our purpose went well beyond aiding our allies as they faced the German blitz. It was to save our way of life, for our parents and siblings at home, for our children, the children we hoped to have, and for their children. It has been a way of life that was worth fighting for.”
Rarely do these war heroes speak of what they did, or of how they fought; instead, they concentrate on the entirely different theme of what they were fighting for: for their comrades and their friends; for their families and their country; for freedom, for justice, and for peace. The courage of the soldier, it would seem, blooms in the midst of destruction and death, but its roots lie hidden in deeper soil—in the care for one’s fellow man and for the common good. To have courage does not mean that fear is diminished, but only that it has been surpassed by love.
Now most of us here today are unlikely to encounter such momentous strife, to repeatedly look death in the face as a combat veteran has done. Few of us, perhaps, will be forced to choose between our own lives and the things we hold most dear. But all of us face a choice between living for ourselves and living for the sake of something greater. The example of our veterans teaches us that we must not spend our lives in fear, working only for our own security. To live a full human life is always to be willing to risk it—in belief, in commitment, in love—for things that are greater even than life itself.
So today we should honor all of our veterans by remembering their service to our country and by thanking them for their tremendous self-sacrifice. But more than this, we can honor our veterans in our own lives by choosing to live for the things that they would die for: for our families, for one another, and for our country; for freedom, for justice, and for peace.