Palisades, NY 10964
Thank you to the organizers of this event and to American Legion John M. Perry Post #1044 in Sparkill for the invitation to speak on this important occasion as we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of freedom, democracy and opportunity in this country, and around the world.
This flag pole was erected in 1861 and dedicated in May of that year, just weeks after southern troops had fired on Fort Sumpter signaling the start of the Civil War. The flagpole was an expression of loyalty to the union and symbolized the town’s opposition to slavery. It was, appropriately enough, dubbed the “liberty pole.” That was a distant time, but the gift of courage of those Union soldiers endures even today as we continue to seek a “more perfect union.”
This year, 2022, is especially poignant as we watch in horror of what is happening in Ukraine. Not a distant time, but a distant place. Vladimir Putin is a living example of how blind allegiance to an autocrat can lead to unprovoked and unrelenting violence that threatens not only individual nation states but the whole world order. Devastating scenes from Ukraine remind us of what is at stake when despots run rough-shod over international borders and brutalize innocent civilians in the name of some obscure nativism devoid of justice and compassion. And on this day, the inspiring example of Ukrainian resolve reminds us—half a world away—of the enduring gift of courage and the sacrifices made by our own service personnel when freedom, human rights and human dignity were threatened.
We are not perfect in this country. That is obvious to anyone who has studied our history or even tracked the events of the past two weeks. The tragedies in Buffalo and Uvalde remind us once again how we have failed to protect our fellow citizens—whether grandmothers in our supermarkets or elementary school kids in our classrooms. But no nation is without blemish. Sometimes, we get it wrong and our laws, our policies, our practices prove short-sighted or incomplete.
But we have a constitution that holds us accountable in striving for a more perfect union. There are processes for changing course, for correcting our missteps, checks and balances on all levels of government that allow is to hold a mirror up to our collective selves to be sure we are doing the right thing. You can speak up—talk to your neighbors, you can organize—if you don’t like the people in power, run for office yourself. And we can all vote. So, if you are horrified by the violence in Uvalde or in Buffalo, vote for candidates that actively promote gun safety. We have that choice.
Nightly news reminds us that in Russia today, the people do not have that opportunity. And, on this particular Memorial Day, as we watch the news of the sacrifices made in Ukraine—with but just a bit of imagination—we can remember those brave American souls who fought for freedom in our previous conflicts so that we might gather here today. I think of my own father, who served in World War II, of my good friend Bernie Doyle who is here today and who served in Vietnam, of my Intersections colleague Rebecca Summers who served on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. And I am grateful.
To be clear, I am not a veteran. But, about 15 years ago, I became Founding Director of Intersections International, a global social justice organization affiliated with the Collegiate Church of NY. Our charge: to identify divisions that were tearing apart our society and to bring people together across lines of difference. One of our primary emphases was the military/civilian divide in our country as veterans returned from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, often to report that the most difficult time of their deployment was when they returned home.
In that capacity, I had the opportunity to work closely with men and women who served, especially those who had been deployed to conflict zones. In so doing, I developed a whole new understanding of the motivation to enlist, the deep sense of pride and collegiality among the troops, and the profound cost of such service, including injuries sustained—both visible and invisible—and comrades killed.
Our approach was to hold Veteran Civilian Dialogues (VCD) under the premise that when veterans and civilians talk together about both their triumphs and their trauma, veterans could better heal and civilians like myself could gain greater empathy for those who served, including those, especially post-911—who enlisted as a selfless act to defend family, community and country.
The program aimed to deepen relationships between returning US veterans and civilians, with specific focus on equipping vets with skills and expertise for reintegration into civilian society; AND equipping civilians with veteran-friendly sensitivities, language and actions in order to more ably welcome them home.
Instead of films or statistical reports, our medium for restoration from the effects of war were real-time, in-depth conversations. In the first five years of VCD’s life, across six states and the District of Columbia, we held more than 50 such dialogues and more than 5,000 participated. More than one vet told me explicitly “VCD saved my life.” Equally important, almost every Veterans’ group in the NY area adopted this model of including civilians in discussions of what it meant to be deployed and then return to civilian life. With all the conversation about PTS, we built our program on the growing recognition that civilians needed healing, too: from guilt, from ignorance, from apathy, from insensitivity, from a variety of attitudes that pigeon-holed veterans and made them less human. The healing task was something we—veterans and civilians—must do together, not something to be done “for vets.”
Civilians like myself got to know individual veterans in profound ways; and veterans came to understand that there were some civilians who were genuinely concerned about their well-being—beyond the insipid “thank you for your service”—and who sought to work at implementing practical ways to reintegrate veterans into civilian life.
All this is well and good—and vitally important—but does not touch directly upon why we are gathered here on this Memorial Day: to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, who could not engage in those dialogues or be with us to experience today’s warming sunshine and gentle breeze, or hear these halting words that seek to express reverence and gratitude for the courage that led to that ultimate sacrifice. For me, it was within the context of those dialogues that the poignancy of that sacrifice became real.
So, I conclude my remarks with this story—seared into my consciousness. Many of our dialogues were held in our storefront in NYC, on 5th Avenue between 29th and 30th Streets, next door to Marble Collegiate Church. Marble Church is a big, stone edifice surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Every Sunday after worship during the height of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a brief ceremony where the pastor hung a ribbon with a name written on it for each person who died that week in combat. Hundreds of ribbons adorned that fence.
During one such mid-winter dialogue, we were engaged in an activity where veterans and civilians would take turns telling their story about how their deployment—or that of a loved one—impacted their life. After a quick break where participants stepped outside, a veteran came in from the frosty air to share a powerful story about how he had enlisted after 911 so that his young niece and nephew would continue to have the freedoms he enjoyed. But when he returned from his deployment, his family forbid him to see his niece and nephew because he had “changed.” He stared at the floor. His voice was hesitating, but his words were gritty and determined. His sense of grief and betrayal was palpable as he told this gut-wrenching story.
Then suddenly, in mid-sentence, he stopped. He got very quiet; the whole room fell silent. Then, he whispered, “I just saw my buddy’s name on one of the ribbons on the fence.” I was sitting pretty close to him and I will never forget the look in his eyes—the vacant stare, overflowing with grief.
His story never made the evening news. No one ever produced a video about it. No one wrote a book. I am not even sure who, if anyone, outside that room, knew of this returning US vet who, in the midst of sharing his sense of betrayal by his family and his society, then had his heart ripped out when, out for a smoke on the frosty night, he discovers the name of his buddy written on a ribbon hanging on a fence—and it all came flooding back.
So, that is why we’re here—in the midst of nightly reminders of the bravery in soldiers half way around the world, we celebrate the enduring gift of courage as we remember those from our own country who have answered the call and who have served and sacrificed so that we can safely share our stories. In the midst of outdoor bar-b-ques, making plans for summer vacation and holiday sales promoting everything from patio furniture to play stations, may we pause and remember why we are here and honor those who have served, especially those who have literally given their lives that we might be free.