Today we celebrate the courage and sacrifice of all living veterans. They are the men and women who answered the call of duty with courage, love and devotion. They served something greater than themselves. They served the cause of freedom. And many to this day bear the scars of freedom, suffered on foreign battlefields, on the high seas and at high altitudes.
I served my country from 1972 to 1977 as a C-130 pilot in the United States Air Force. But I will be the first to tell you that my country has done more for me than I could ever offer in return. I never experienced the great horrors of war, though many I served with did. To me, they were the true heroes -- not just those who gave their lives, but all who gave themselves in service to our country.
Today another generation of Americans have answered the call of duty -- in Afghanistan, Iraq, and on missions we don't even know about today. Many have returned from those two conflicts forever changed by the experience of war. And today we are surrounded by generations of Americans who fought in previous conflicts: the first Persian Gulf War, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and throughout the Cold War. And though their numbers are dwindling, we still have with us the heroes of the Second World War. They include my father Ray Perry, and my father-in-law Dr. Joe Thigpen.
One relative on my wife Anita's side of the family I never had the honor of meeting -- Captain Jack Golden -- fought in World War II. Fortunately, though Jack is not with us anymore, we have his many letters written from battlefields overseas. And on this special day, I wanted to share a few excerpts with you, so we can all get a small glimpse into the life of one of our nation's many warriors.
Five days after landing in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Jack writes home with pride about the success of his Regiment at Omaha Beach, a tank destroyer division of the First Army, 16th Regiment in the First Division:
"We landed in France and I guess you have heard that we did a good job. We really did. Our Regt. Fought better than I have ever seen them fight before. I am still giving them hell dad." -- June 11, 1944
But almost four months to the exact day after landing in France, following a long spell of inclement weather, and reports from home about production shortages, frustration is clearly starting to build in Jack's mind, and likely amongst all the men:
"What is this stuff I read in the paper about the people at home getting ready for V-Day? If they were here with us they could understand just how long it will be before V-day I will say that if production slows down and shipment slows down much more we will be having another D-Day and not a V-Day." -- October 5, 1944
The emotions seem to vary greatly after four months of war in France. The bitterness of two weeks ago is replaced by the poignant expression of love from a son to his father -- a reminder that while he had experienced what no man should experience at any age, he was still just a 23-year old young man. Jack writes to his father:
"Dear Dad: I received your letter of Oct 2 and was really glad to hear from you. Even though you don't write very often the letters you write do me a world of good. It makes me feel good all over
" I am getting very anxious to see you too daddy. It has been nearly two years since I last saw you. I have been a lot of places and had lots of experiences but I have never forgotten what you once told me about praying. I have had lots of chances since that time. I think perhaps it has saved my life a few times. I also have not forgotten that I have the best mother and dad in the world. Anything I do is done because of the things you have taught me to do and to do the best I can to make you glad I am your son." -- October 20, 1944
Jack's reminiscing about home, and the recognition of his own mortality create a spiritual experience common among soldiers at war, as he prays for his own survival. And yet nothing can prepare a soldier for the loss of those close to you, as Jack wrote about in a letter soon after:
"I had my heart torn out an(d) thrown at me a few days ago. Capt. O'Brien was killed. Dave told me about it over the radio and I wouldn't believe it. I took command of the company and am really having my hands full. I thought I was busy when I was Exec. Of the company, but I have twice as much to do now." -- November 25, 1944
Several months and a lot of action later, as reports reach home and loved ones read with excitement how close their sons are to victory, a hint of trepidation appears in a late-March dispatch from Jack. No one wants to get killed so close to the end of the war, and yet they continue to get the tough duties:
"No, mother we weren't the first ones across the Rhine, but it didn't take us long to get us over here. We haven't got many divisions in the American Army I don't guess. We are getting a little tired of hearing "Send the First, they are tried troops with experience.'" -- March 24, 1945
Jack's last letter is as reflective as any sent from the battlefield. He is fearful that not enough precautions are being taken prior to the assault on German towns. But he fears not just for his own life, but future generations of Americans unless there is a political and cultural shift back home, and a permanent commitment to a well-built, professional and lethal military. He writes:
"We are going to town again. There is only one thing wrong. There are too many German towns that we haven't had time to fire our artillery into. I think we should fire about a thousand rounds into every town Someday I will tell you why I think my children and possibly yours will have to fight over the same ground I did and it will be a different and harder war. We have got to have military training in America for years and years to come. We have got to be so powerful that we can strike and strike hard in a very short time. We have got to build our character, maybe I should say get hard and tough. Enough. Enough. After that outburst I had better tell my sweetheart that I still love her." -- April 3, 1945
I wish I could say this was Jack's last letter before he caught the big boat home. But instead he died at the hands of a German sniper just weeks before the Germans surrendered. Jack Golden would never make it home and see his "daddy". He would never see his sweet cousin -- my mother-in-law -- whom he affectionately called Sister. His remains are buried in an American cemetery in Germany. And his family would experience the great grief of another letter, this time from the commanding officer of the 16th Infantry:
30 April, 1945
Mrs. Reta M. Golden
Dear Mrs. Golden:
Please accept the sincere condolences of the officers and men of the 16th Infantry, on the death of your son, Captain Jack L. Golden, 0465929, who was killed in action on 15 April 1945 in Germany
Jack, at all times, was a good soldier and was well liked by both officers and men. He continually displayed the habits and bearing of an officer and gentleman, and he had the real respect and friendship of all who knew him. He died as he lived, courageously; in the performance of a difficult mission.
FREDERICK W. GIBB
Col, 16th Infantry
When I read Jack's letters, as I am prone to do from time to time, I wonder if we have truly honored the depth of his sacrifice, and the sacrifice of so many who never made it home from places we recognize first and foremost because of the horrors of war: Normandy, Guadalcanal, Pearl Harbor, Anzio, North Africa, Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Baghdad, Kabul, and a thousand places in between.
It's not just those who made the ultimate sacrifice that we must honor as Americans. It is also the heroes who made it home. This day -- Veterans Days -- we honor our living heroes. We do so this year on 11/11/11. Our veterans have served and protected the greatest nation on the face of the earth. They are the greatest American ambassadors of freedom. They gave their all so we would not have to. They freed millions from tyranny and oppression, arriving not as conquerors but liberators. The freedom of a great many is a tribute to the courage of so few.
Today another generation of Americans is at war. One by one the survivors return home, their lives forever changed. Many are so young their best days should be ahead of them. But only if we honor their sacrifice with deeds and not just words only if we ensure they have transitional training to fill good jobs, access to quality health care because of the injuries and trauma they have sustained, and support to finish their education, afford a home and get on with their lives.
The valor of our veterans can never be captured fully in ceremonies or tributes -- and certainly not in a single letter. But it can be recognized, celebrated and remembered nonetheless by all of us who breathe the air of freedom they so heroically defended. To all veterans, we offer the gratitude of a great nation, and our best wishes for a long and happy life lived forevermore in peace.