Good morning. It is an honor to be here today speaking with you on this important American Commemoration Day. Before I begin, I want to say thank you to President Schumacher and the Trustees for inviting me to speak this morning. As she just told you, my name is Gary Good. I retired from the US Army as a lieutenant colonel on April 1st, less than 8 weeks ago. Today, I have returned to my beloved Illinois to continue my service to the people of Will County … To make Illinois Incredible once again.
As we stand here today, I want us to consider this same date 94 years ago … In 1922. On this date, May 30, 1922, Chief Justice William H Taft dedicated the Lincoln Memorial on our National Mall and presented it to the President, Warren Harding. As these men stood before that 19 foot tall statue of Abraham Lincoln sitting in that marble chair, looking upon the National Mall, it must have been a humbling moment.
This man, this Illinois man, who led our nation through the abolition of slavery by persevering in our Civil War which took the lives of more than 2% of our population … More than 600,000 men and women. To one side were the words of his Gettysburg Address when President Lincoln reminded those in attendance that it had been a mere four score and seven years, 87 years ago, since 56 men had signed their death warrants when they Declared Independence from King George III and declared the equality of man. How could those men say anything that would be more meaningful than Lincoln’s words or the actions of those nearly 8,000 dead at Gettysburg who had given their lives so their nation might live. As he said, “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground… These brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
That marble floor has held the weight of many, many people. Those people look upon those words and seldom comprehend the weight those words carried as they commemorated that battlefield … Words that could be spoken in so many more places. Those eyes of Abraham Lincoln look out across the National Mall to the Washington Monument, the obelisk dedicated to the first leader of our nation who understood selfless service, even upon making the decision to leave office when most everyone wanted him to stay. He was led by a greater power, by the hand of God, that to ld him that a democracy cannot be held in the hands of a single man or small group of men … lest it become controlled by a despot seizing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from some to give to others … those in HIS favor.
Beyond that tall, proud monument stands the US Capitol where the words of President John F Kennedy rang-out across the Mall and around the world … “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” In the half-century prior to his remarks more than 500,000 Americans had given their lives in World War I, World War II, and Korea. Each of those lives had stood their ground, had done their job, had fought for freedom … And more often than not, their death paid the price for another to continue on … For one of their brothers-in-arms to come home and marry, have children, and grandchildren.
As I look at those assembled here today, I see hats, shirts, uniforms, and more that are quiet reminders of those young men and women who died to allow us to return here today. And, that is why we stand here to remember. We do not stand here for us, the veterans … we stand here, dedicating our time, to remember the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coasties, and civilians who died to preserve our freedoms. This day was first commemorated as Decoration Day on this very day, May 30, 1868 when citizens in Charleston, South Carolina went to the cemeteries to place flowers and others decorations upon the graves of Union and Confederate Soldiers killed in the Civil War. The practice flourished in just a few years … until it became a national holiday when Americans take time to remember.
Five years ago on this very day, May 30, 2011, I was in Afghanistan. I was an Army Strategist working on the planning of Afghan Security Forces and the US forces who would support them … Planning that would end-up on the desk of the President of the United States and other leaders around the world. But, on that day, we too took time to commemorate our fellow Americans who had given their lives. I worked in a multinational headquarters for an American Lieutenant General. My office had an Australian, a Norwegian, a German, a Pole, a French officer, and a British officer. The British officer, a Colonel, came forward and offered a special commemoration … A special gift to memorialize all the dead on this very American of days … He played the bagpipes for the ceremony. It was hauntingly beautiful to hear those bagpipes playing Taps and the rest … Knowing that the sounds that usually permeated the air in Kabul … were all halted to the sound of bagpipes commemorating the dead.
Amazingly, those same sounds had been talked about in another hallowed place by another great citizen of Illinois … Ronald Reagan. At the D-Day commemoration in 1984, Ronald Reagan, harkening to his kindred Illinois brother, Lincoln, once again used time to take us back to a terrible, but triumphant day, in history. He took us back forty years to the D-Day invasion and spoke of the 225 US Army Rangers who scaled the walls of the cliffs at Normandy to destroy German artillery that would rain down upon Omaha Beach and kill many, many Allied Invaders if those Rangers failed. As their daggers dug into the precipice of the cliff and pulled their tired bodies over the edge, they fought on to be triumphant … And only 90 remained to fight another day. 135 had died or been severely injured, but each of those lives given saved the lives of untold numbers of American, British, Canadians, and more. Reagan went on to tell the story of a British regiment holding a bridge but terribly outnumbered. They heard the sounds of bagpipes and wondered if they were dead already … Until they saw their comrades in arms coming down the way with reinforcements. As Reagan stated, once again like Lincoln … his Illinois brother invoked God and the works of his divine hand when he said, “they had the rock hard belief of every man that day, that D-Day, that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause.”
And, that brings us back to Lincoln and the memorial we began with… Around him … Now … Many years after that commemoration on May 30, 1922, the USA has dedicated its National Mall to those who have given their lives in defense of the hallowed ground that is The United States of America … This City upon a Hill. The eyes of his 19 foot marble statue gaze from his left … Where we commemorate the 58,307 Vietnam dead by name … over to the center where the World War II monument commemorates the more than 400,000 dead with 4,048 stars …a star for each 100 of them … following over to his right where we commemorate the Korean War with a haunting platoon of soldiers on patrol and the 36,516 dead. Southwest of the Lincoln Memorial stands Robert E. Lee’s former estate, Arlington, which the Union seized when he took his commission from the Confederacy … And they buried the first Union dead in his front yard. Today, more than 14,000 are interred there … A moving place dedicated to those who gave their lives in war … AND those who returned home because of them …. But wanted to rest side by side with their brothers-in-arms.
We here in Illinois are proud of our dedication to preserving Liberty. Time and again around our great state, we have created places of memorial to remember those who gave their all to defend freedom and preserve Liberty. At my beloved Alma Mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we play football in Memorial Stadium … Dedicated initially to those who died in World War I and then extended to those who died in World War II. Our beloved Chicago Bears, who wear their blue and orange in homage to George Halas’s Illinois Alma Mater colors, play in Soldier Field, dedicated to the US Soldiers who died in World War I. Just down the road in Elwood, we have Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery which contains more than 32,000 interred remains.
Today, we commemorate the dead … Because of them, we stand here today. You stand here with me … Many of you might know the name or names of those who died and allowed you to stand here. While I was a young man in the Army, I was back at Fort Rucker, AL where I had completed flight school and flew Blackhawk helicopters. Seven years before, CW3 Michael Durant had been shot down in his Blackhawk in Mogadishu, Somalia. He knew the names of the two men who had saved his life … Gary Gordon and Randy Shugart … these two men, made famous in the movie Blackhawk down … they demanded to be placed with CW3 Durant … knowing they would likely not come back alive. This is the way of the warrior … to stand when no one else will … at the side of his brother-in-arm. These two men received the Medal of Honor like so many of our Medal recipients do … posthumously. CW3 Durant spoke to my class of young captains about the debt he can never repay.
It is hard for those who have never served to connect a name on a wall, or a star on a monument to their own lives and see the ties that bind their lives to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice … It is hard to completely empathize when they watch the old man in Saving Private Ryan as tears roll down his face at Normandy. He might be a movie character, but those tears have watered many a grave around the world.
But, we must try … and this is the day we do so … we take a deep breath and explain as best we can.
For that reason, we must remember, and live, Ronald Reagan’s final words standing on that cliff at Normandy 32 years ago next week …
“Let us make a vow to our dead. Let our actions say to them the words for which General Matthew Ridgway listened, ‘I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.’ Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideal for which they lived and died.”
Let us never forget, and may our state step forward once again and be the Incredible state it once was … A state that defends the liberty of all … Justly. God Bless you all, God Bless our Fallen, and God Bless Illinois.
Gary L. Good
Lieutenant Colonel, US Army, Retired