Veterans Day Address
The following is the key note address delivered by SSG A.J. Etherington during the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ and American Legion’s Veterans Day Ceremony in Glasgow on November 11th.
In the last year, I have been humbled on three occasions now to address crowds to honor veterans, those present and those who have passed on. I will tell you now that it does not get any easier, and the honor does not feel any less significant each time I do. In the beginning, I am overwhelmed trying to imagine describing in words the sacrifices that fill this room, nor can I imagine, even in my situation, many of the experiences that also fill this room. So I proceed aware that the challenge before me is through sincere service to my brothers and sisters.
I was preparing an article for the newspaper last week highlighting two veterans. One who was 95 years old and served during WWII, and the other who was 18 and is less than a week out of basic training. What struck me wasn’t that they had very different stories, that were generations apart, but that they both chose to serve this same country at very different times. So, I thought hard trying to recognize what would have brought these two very different people into the same realm of serving their country.
I don’t believe I can explain what leads young men and women to serve their country, but I do know that despite the risks, the potential horrors, and in some cases the rejection of their fellow citizens, every veteran from the beginning of this country served ultimately for the same reason.
They, we rather, served for you, for all of us. We served for America, for our freedom, for the innocent, for the weak, for the poor, the tired, the enslaved, the brutalized, the persecuted, and for the victims of genocide. We served for those living in dictatorships, or under the threat of terror, we served to make the World truly a better place. We fought to eliminate hate, promote peace, to serve democracy, and the rights of all men. This country’s life has been short, and by all means not even close to perfect for many living here and abroad, but the values we veterans fought for are very much pure.
There was no money to be had, no certain glory for many, and certainly no grand prize, or fixed reward, just duty, honor, courage, and selfless service to be upheld. Maybe it was patriotism, maybe it was the thought that we must stand in the way of those that wish to crush the beauty of equality and unity. Our country owes itself to those men and women, because it was planted and nurtured by our blood, sweat and tears. It was their actions that allowed us to share this day. Thomas Dunn English, a New Jersey State Representative near the turn of the 20th century, said, “But the freedom that they fought for, and the country grand they wrought for, Is their monument to-day, and for aye.” Our country unified, whole, under God, for all the people, by all the people, and filled gloriously with peace is now and will forever be our monument, and our world for which all of us fought.
Every time I give a speech I try to ask the crowd not to just speak but to act. I told the good people of Hinsdale on Memorial Day, most directly the Veterans present, that those who are lost are best honored in the way we live. I am calling on those of you here today to do the same. If thanking, honoring or commending a veteran is your desire then by all means do so in the manner you wish, but remember that words without action are mere consolations. I call you to serve, no not necessarily in the military or in war, I call you to serve as you can. I challenge you to take on a significant sacrifice in solidarity with veterans, not just today but for the betterment of all people.
Every veteran in this room gave something for you, and in return asked for nothing. We gave up family birthdays, and even the births of our children, we gave up seeing Grandma pass on, and our siblings get married. We gave up comfort and possessions living Spartan lives in places described by words I couldn’t and shouldn’t utter in such decent company. We cried while trying to save friends, lead when no one else would, we made it home, and carry those fallen on our backs forever. Even if we did not give all of those things in some far off land we were whole-heartedly ready to do so. We were ready and willing to give as much as was necessary for this community, for you its people, and for the whole of humanity.
So I beg you. If the world to you seems harsh, cold, full of hate, or just distant and strange then change that in your life through service. Before I travelled the world I believed that everything wrong in someone’s life was their own responsibility. After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan I realized that I was wrong, the world is not wrong in that it contains those who cannot help themselves, but rather it’s neglected by those who can help them. Those with strength are, in my opinion, required to stand up for the weak. We are the keepers of our brothers and sisters, and we owe all people on this planet the dignity and respect of being human.
Veterans are without a doubt one of the greatest examples of sacrifice and if honoring them is your intent than my recommendation is to not squander what we gave you, but to improve and build upon it. The simplest things done within our community can make the world of difference to our country. The food bank, Soroptomist, the Children’s Museum, local athletics, youth groups, church groups, FFA, 4H, literacy projects, and the Boys Scouts all play some role in not only our community, but in the lives of its future. Maybe I’m idealistic, but if everything we have endured was for something than it falls on all of us to serve that cause, and work hard so that no Veteran now or ever has to sacrifice anything in life. Today we honor those who gave some part of themselves to the cause of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We honor those who have fought in the darkness so that we all can live in the light. The least we can do is stoke the fire from time to time.
Staff Sergeant A.J. Etherington is the Montana National Guard Recruiting and Retention Non-Commissioned Officer for Northeastern Montana. He is also a Marine Veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.