A New England Town Remembers
I live in the small New England town of Mashpee, Massachusetts, a place with a patriotic heart. The town’s high school first opened in 1996 and now has about seven hundred students but at one time had a great many more before the economy of the region caused a number of families to move out of the area.
As a small school their football team is undermanned at only about thirty-five players and about half the team play both offense and defense. One of the players is female. What they lack in numbers they more than make up for in hard work and dedication. For the first time ever the team is undefeated this year, and will soon participate in the state championships held at Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots.
At their recent homecoming game, which my wife and I attended, there was a genuine sense of community. It seems everyone connected with the school — students, faculty, and school administrators, even returning grads — all come out to root for the home team. There is interaction between students and their teachers. It’s a real-life “Friday Night Lights.” Pro football players are huge by comparison with these young men but none are lacking in enthusiasm and effort. And while high school football is taken seriously, particularly in places like Texas, in our town football and local sports possesses a certain innocence that is absent in big-time college and professional football.
Mashpee has also paid a high price for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: to date four Mashpee members of the armed forces have been killed, several of them graduates of the high school. One had been a Boy Scout, another a poet. Another of those killed in action was a Marine aviator.
In October, I received an invitation to deliver the keynote address at their annual Veteran’s Day ceremony. Because Veteran’s Day is a national holiday the school holds its ceremony on November 10. Everyone attends: the faculty, the entire student body, even the superintendent of schools. It is a well-organized and well-run event. Also participating is a color guard from the local VFW, veterans, and invited guests. In addition to posting the colors, the national anthem was sung by one of the students, who was ardently cheered by her fellow students. There followed a tribute to the four local soldiers and marines killed in the current wars and their families were each presented with a bouquet of flowers.
This was followed by video interviews with three members of the school faculty who are veterans. They told their stories of service to the nation with a sense of gratitude and patriotism. These videos received a strong reception from the students and served as a great teaching tool.
After my keynote speech the ceremony ended with the singing of “America the Beautiful” by the school a cappella choir. What struck me about this ceremony was that it was clearly much more than just mandatory attendance by the students. They were interested, engaged, respectful and attentive.
What is impressive is the total commitment by the school to treat Veteran’s Day as a very special event. They do this every year as a civic duty. The superintendent of schools told my wife and I that not every town in our area has such an event. Some high schools do not because they cannot trust their students to behave properly in an assembly.
Here is what I said to the assembly:
From the time of our birth as a nation more than two hundred years ago there is one lesson we have learned over and over again: freedom is not free. It comes at a cost.
Veteran’s Day 2011 is one of those special times when Americans join together in towns and cities to honor our veterans. Americans have fought on the banks of the Delaware, on San Juan Hill, in the Argonne Forest in 1918, at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and later on Guadalcanal, on the sands of Iwo Jima and on numerous other long forgotten islands in the Pacific, in North Africa, Italy, Burma, in Normandy and during the Battle of the Bulge – in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and, more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As you will now hear, a significant number of American servicemen and women have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Here are some numbers to ponder: some 8,000 American soldiers died serving in the Revolutionary War, 20,000 in the War of 1812, and 13,000 in the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848.
In the Civil War, the Union lost approximately 364,000 in action and from disease and the Confederacy 260,000.
Losses in the Spanish-American War were over 2,400.
In World War I, 4,272,500 were mobilized, 116,500 killed and 204,000 wounded.
During the Second World War 12,354,000 men and women served in the Armed Forces of the United States. 292,557 of them were killed in action, 671,000 were wounded and 11,324 Merchant mariners were also killed. According to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command there are still over 74,000 Americans unaccounted for from World War II. If you ever visit one of the twenty-four American military cemeteries overseas you will find the names of the missing inscribed on a wall of honor. Those with rosettes next to them indicate that their remains have since been recovered and identified.
During the Korean War more than 36,000 died in combat, over 92,000 were wounded and over 8,100 missing in action. In Vietnam, 58,261 Americans were killed or MIA.
Over 42 million Americans have participated in wars from the Revolution to 1998, with more than 1,000,000 listed as having died in the service of the nation.
Losses in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now exceed 6,100 killed. Of those more than 33 are female.
As Gen. Colin Powell recently noted: “Over the years, Americans have chosen to serve for many reasons – during the Revolutionary War, to create a nation; in World War II, to save humanity from destruction; at various times to help pay for college. Still, no matter the motivation once our men and women joined up, they’ve given their all for our country.”
We officially commemorate Veteran’s Day on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the moment when an armistice was signed ending World War I, also known as the Great War. After World War I the red poppy, which grew in great profusion on the battlefields and military cemeteries of Flanders, became the symbol of remembrance.
In Britain and the British Commonwealth they call Veteran’s Day Remembrance Day, a time when both living veterans and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice are honored. It is traditional in Remembrance Day ceremonies to read a poem written in 1915 by a Canadian combat surgeon, Lt. Col. John McCrae. It is called “In Flanders Fields” and I believe it is one of the many ways that we can honor our own veterans. It goes like this:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
That torch is now ours to carry. For many in America, Veteran’s Day is just another holiday, a long weekend in November. Thankfully, there are a great many people across this vast land of ours that never forget.
Although we sometimes take it for granted, the most precious thing we have is our freedom. However, from veterans we often hear this question: in the future will anyone even remember our extraordinary sacrifices? To this I reply: There can be but one answer, which rests upon future generations – yours and mine – to continue to carry the torch of remembrance.
As Gen. Powell points out, as veterans we too can give back by teaching “our children that we must all take care of each other, on the battlefield and in life.”
In this age of senseless terrorism and unrest on an international scale, the sacrifice made by our veterans looms larger than ever. At our peril, we as a nation must never forget the sacrifices of the men and women who have answered the call of duty.
Those who fought in World War II have been called the Greatest Generation. That they were great and what they accomplished is beyond question. There are – in fact – a number of “greatest generations” including the current one. We have been blessed with generations of Americans, both prior to and since that momentous war, that have also answered the call of duty.
A few years ago my son, Chris, who lives in Arizona began doing something that makes me particularly proud of him. He began going up to service men and women in uniform and thanking them for their service. He feels it is the least he can do to show his appreciation for all they do. So, the next time you see someone wearing the uniform of a member of the armed forces take a moment to thank them. The reward for such a small gesture will be like that MasterCard saying: “Priceless!”
I expect that some you in this room today will one day serve as members of the armed forces. I wish you well and am confident that your training and your patriotism will see you through challenging times.
I’d like to conclude my presentation today by showing you a short video. It speaks for itself.
Note: A short advert has been recently been added that precedes the video.
Also worth noting is that there is always room for debate about statistics. In more than thirty-years as a military historian, the most difficult challenge has been to accurately document casualties. Figures vary, even from the best of sources, and even the official histories don’t always get it right. The sources cited herein are considered reliable but some are still little more than estimates. For example, losses in the Revolutionary War are, at best, only reasonable estimates. The original government report of losses stated that the totals were too low and too incomplete. Then there are such statistics as non-battle losses. They are hardly ever counted except separately, yet a soldier, sailor, marine or airmen who dies of a disease acquired in the line of duty is just as much a casualty of war as one who is killed in action. And so it goes.