Following are my comments from earlier today:
"It’s an honor to be here with all of you today on this Veterans Day for 2013. Joining us are those who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of you served in multiple wars; many of you served in peacetime, manning those watch towers of freedom throughout the world.
Perhaps you are the family members of those who served. You know, in a very big way, you’re also veterans because you guarded the home front in our absence, patiently – though nervously – waiting for our return. You must surely know that it was the comforting thoughts of you - and the memories of the green grass of home - that gave us the spirit and determination to do everything possible to come home to you.
It is now the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. This day began as Armistice Day to celebrate the agreement that brought an end to World War I in 1918.
In 1954, veteran’s service organizations urged Congress to change the word "Armistice" to "Veterans". Congress approved this change and November 11th became a day to honor all American veterans, where ever and whenever they had served.
I am greatly blessed to have served as an American soldier. My own service stretched over a 41 year period with three breaks in that service. I finally managed to get 22 years that were good enough for retirement. During that time, I was either in the active Army, the Army National Guard, or the Army Reserve.
But the good thing about taking so long to retire is that I got to serve with other soldiers in part of the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the 80s, the 90s, and most of the first decade of the 21st century. As a very young, brand new Ranger, I served with men who had fought in World War II, Korea, as well as in Vietnam. As a grizzled old sergeant, I was fortunate to serve in Iraq with some of the best trained young soldiers I have ever known.
In fact, I am wearing this Stetson to honor the men I served with in the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam. I am wearing my Desert Camouflage Uniform shirt from Iraq to honor the troops I served with there in Special Operations and Civil Affairs.
I grew up here in Central Florida as the proud son of a World War II infantryman. When I was a little kid, I would play soldier like most little boys, wearing my father’s uniforms, his helmet liner, or his Eisenhower jacket. When I was about six years old in the mid ‘50s, I rode in an Army Reserve jeep with my father, Major John Grist, during a Christmas parade in downtown Winter Park. The spectators cheered the marching soldiers, and I kind of felt like I was in the Army too.
I grew up hearing stories about my own ancestors who fought in every one of America’s wars, including the American Revolution. I like to say that I’m a “Grandson” of the original Sons of Liberty, the dedicated group of patriots who began America’s war of independence.
Remember that it was Ben Franklin who was once asked at the end of the Constitutional Convention: “Well, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A Republic - if you can keep it.” The task of defending that Republic would ultimately fall to members of America’s armed forces. And they have done a masterful job.
But now I’m just another old soldier who’s proud of his service, but who has to stand aside for a new generation of American warriors. That’s okay; but if these kids need backup, I promise you my fellow veterans and I will get there as soon as we can.
You know, the first week I arrived in Baghdad in early 2004, I ran into three young soldiers from the First Cavalry Division who had also just arrived. I asked them which battalion they were with, and they said they were with the Second Battalion of the Eighth Cavalry. That was the unit I served with in Vietnam. When I told them I had served with the same unit 34 years earlier, the poor young troopers looked like they’d seen a ghost. I guess I would have felt the same way back in 1970 if I met a soldier in Vietnam who had been in the Army in 1936.
Tennyson wrote about old soldiers in the poem “Ulysses.” He said, and I quote:
"Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
My parents and their contemporaries were members of that “Greatest Generation” that helped save the world from the brutality of Nazi and Japanese fascism.
As they guided our country through those terrible times, they followed the examples of their own parents who fought courageously in Europe during World War I in what everyone at the time believed was the “War to End all Wars”.
America is also fortunate that the service of our veterans doesn’t end with their military experience. They return to their families, finish their education, and move on to contribute to society in countless ways for their entire lives. America receives the benefits of everything its veterans learned about every aspect of life. I think those traits are described quite well in the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.
As veterans, we are grateful that our fellow citizens honor our service today, even as days like this heighten our own memories of other times and other places.
We’ll always remember things like:
• Standing guard in a lonely bunker, anticipating an attack that may or may not come;
• Waiting for the door of the landing craft to drop so we could rush into the machine gun fire of the enemy;
• Sitting in the open door of a Huey helicopter as it descends to a jungle filled with people who want to kill us;
• Riding a convoy down some deadly road waiting for an improvised explosive device to disintegrate our Humvee;
• Staring into the faces of our dead comrades – either on the field of battle or late at night in our dreams;
• Enemy bullets whizzing by our heads;
• The shaking of the ground as a rocket or mortar explodes nearby;
• The frightening sound of an exploding rocket-propelled grenade as it sends razor-sharp pieces of shrapnel in a thousand directions;
• Every single detail of the day we got that jagged scar on our arm or leg;
• And the constant stress of living your life on red alert twenty-four hours a day;
In fact, I’m sure that some of the veterans here today remember trying to get as close to the ground as possible in rather difficult circumstances, praying that God would somehow let us get closer to the ground than the buttons on our uniforms.
In all of America’s wars, our troops have served courageously, and today we remember all of the good things about our veterans and their dedication to preserving our way of life. But I do feel an obligation to remind all of us of some of the hardships faced by both the current generation of returning veterans and some of their predecessors. Those difficulties include trouble finding jobs, homelessness, and PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder.
A great many veterans from America’s wars have a hard time living with all the memories of war. What used to be called “shell shocked” in World War I or “battle fatigue” in World War II has become “post-traumatic stress disorder” in the modern world. We understand it better, we have more efficient ways of helping our veterans, but we have to get them to ask for that help.
You know, it is a terrible thing for our troops to walk to the very edge of hell, look into the depths of that fiery pit, and then walk away. They are certainly grateful to be alive, but they will never forget the horrors of what they saw. Their youthful innocence is gone forever; they are still young, but in their souls they have aged far beyond their years.
My father-in-law is 89 years old. He still remembers when Japanese kamikaze pilots crashed their planes into the USS Ticonderoga, killing many of his friends. He has frequent nightmares where he sees the enemy planes crashing into the ship. He remembers trying – but failing – to reach his friends in a blazing inferno. He also remembers the solemn ceremony as each of them was buried at sea. After years of encouragement, he finally went to the Veteran’s Administration and was diagnosed with PTSD, decades after his wartime experiences.
After I returned from Vietnam, I had a couple of not-so-good years myself. Unlike my welcome home from Iraq when we were met by cheering crowds in Bangor, Maine waving signs, patting us on the back, and thanking us for our service, my family members were the only ones who ever welcomed me home in 1971. We kind of kept our service to ourselves back then, confiding only in fellow war veterans – and sometimes not even to them. We kept it all inside where the memories festered like sores that wouldn’t heal. We were proud of our service, but it seemed like no one else was.
Different generations, different wars. I was stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia in 2003 as we helped mobilize some of the first units that would serve in Iraq. While off post in uniform at a gas station, an elderly woman walked up to me. She shook my hand, and then said a thick British accent: “I’m not really sure about this war, but we’ve always loved the Yanks.” I was very grateful for her acknowledgement of my service.
There are many veterans from all of America’s wars who have empty places inside. It’s where we keep the tragic memories of old battlefields along with the faces of our fellow troops who were badly wounded or who didn’t come back home. For me, I remember men from Vietnam like Staff Sergeant James, Sgt. Dowjotas, and Sgt. Brzenski, men I joked with one moment only to stare at their faces shortly afterwards as they were zipped into rubber body bags. Their loss was painful for us - their comrades, but I felt so very sad for their mothers, their fathers, their wives, their children, and all the others who would have to learn to live without them.
I remember those I knew from Iraq like PFC Nichole Frye – killed by an improvised explosive device at the age of 19. Or Staff Sergeant Cerniglia – a man I knew for years in the Army Reserve. He was critically wounded in Sadr City in Baghdad, but he survived. When I saw him in the hospital in the Green Zone, he tried to joke with me, but he was still in shock and would never even remember that I was there. Or Sergeant First Class McKinney, severely wounded by a suicide vest detonated by one of the Iraqi police officers he had been training.
Yet, it doesn’t end there. Most veterans come home and adapt well to stateside life, even with the outside or inside wounds. Others don’t. After my return from Iraq, I was assigned to uniform patrol on the night shift. It was then that I first responded to calls involving some of our newest war veterans.
One of them was a newly married but slightly intoxicated young Marine in his full dress uniform with a Global War On Terrorism Expeditionary medal pinned to his chest. He and his new wife had just returned to their hotel from their wedding reception, but he was ignoring her request to get out of their car. When I spoke with him, I learned that – like me - he had just returned from Iraq. He had his face in his hands, and he was sobbing that “they” – meaning the insurgents – had killed his friends.
Once he was aware that I was a fellow war veteran, I managed to talk him out of his car, and I walked with him and his wife to their hotel room. As we said goodbye, he began to cry again and buried his face in my shoulder. What a sight we must have been; the young Marine embracing the old cop. But it didn’t matter to us because we were brothers-in-arms.
In another incident, I responded to the suicide of a young war veteran. His memorabilia and photos were displayed proudly throughout his apartment, but his roommate said he had been depressed since his return from Iraq.
For a long time, I stood alone with this lifeless warrior who had survived combat only to die needlessly by his own hand. I couldn’t remove the lump from my throat or the bitter ache in the pit of my stomach. If he had only talked to one of us – one of his fellow veterans – maybe we could have convinced him to ask for help.
For the friends and family members of veterans, please encourage them to seek help if you sense that they need it. They may or may not look for that help, but at least you will have done all you could to encourage them to do so.
To my fellow veterans who suffer from PTSD, who can’t find a job, or who find themselves homeless, I simply ask that you seek the help that’s available to you through the Veterans Administration or other organizations. I also remind you that you may be a civilian now, but you were once one of America’s best trained warriors. You may have taken the uniform off, but that same warrior still lives within your soul. You didn’t let the enemy defeat you on the battlefield; don’t let anything defeat you here. Never quit, and never surrender. Remember that it takes the strength of a warrior to ask for help.
For other Americans, please remember that you surely pass veterans every day, and you may not realize:
• That the elderly woman sitting next to you in the doctor’s office may have been a nurse who was captured in the Pacific by the Japanese;
• That the disabled man in the wheel chair once crawled ashore in Normandy as a terrified young G.I.;
• That the man working at the post office survived a fierce guerrilla war in the jungles of Vietnam;
• That the man working as a greeter at a department store has the scars of bayonet wounds from hand-to-hand combat in Korea;
• Or that the young woman sitting in the college classroom served with the military police in Iraq and was decorated for heroism.
I remember one of the elderly volunteers who worked for many years at the Altamonte Springs Police Department. People would pass this man, who was not very tall and who walked with halting steps because of health problems, and few of them knew that he had participated in the invasion of Anzio in World War II, or that he had fought his way through Europe with his fellow soldiers. I knew because we had talked about our military service. There was much that we understood that no one else would ever understand.
On this Veterans Day of 2013, America is still at war. But after twelve years of the War on Terror, we don’t see as many flags on houses or cars; the “support our troops” bumper stickers are faded, torn or missing altogether; and we don’t see quite as many yellow ribbons, do we? Americans are understandably tired of war, but we must not forget that courageous young Americans are still in harm’s way, conducting the combat patrols, riding in the convoys, and suffering the casualties.
On this Veteran’s Day, we remember and pray for all of America’s veterans who have returned to us - whether unscathed, wounded on the outside, or wounded on the inside. Let us also pray for those brave souls who are fighting America’s enemies at this very moment, and for the untold numbers of our veterans who never came home because they gave their lives for us.
We’re standing in a beautiful mall, preparing for a bountiful holiday season, and we’re able to do so in peace and safety because of the courageous men and women who are standing between us and those who would harm us, just as they have for over two hundred years.
There’s a quote I remember from Vietnam that explains very well the understanding that veterans have of their own sacrifices. It was supposedly found scrawled on a C-ration box after the siege of Khe Sanh. It says very simply: “You’ve never lived until you’ve almost died. For those who have fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know.”
God bless all of you, God bless America’s veterans and their families, and God bless the United States of America."
Charles M. Grist