American Legion Speech
Thank you. Commander Smith, National Adjutant Spanogle, General Shelton, Secretary Chao, my fellow veterans: it is the highest of honors to be in the presence of the men and women who have kept this blessed nation free.
I am proud to be in your company, and I am proud to be a member of one of the greatest organizations on earth, the American Legion.
It is good to see a long-time friend who is a good Aggie, a former roommate, and the American Legion’s Legislative Commission Chairman: John Brieden.
After our first year in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M, John and I spent a summer going door-to-door selling Bibles in Missouri. If you think San Antonio is a little humid in August, try Festus or Crystal City, Missouri.
It is a great pleasure to welcome you to this unique and wonderful city that has great ties to the Texas of our past, and a vital role in the Texas of our future. Thank you for choosing San Antonio as the site of your 83rd national convention.
At the dawn of the 21st Century, our nation finds itself in an enviable position. We are the most prosperous nation during the most prosperous of times.
Our citizens enjoy opportunities through technology that could not have been conceived just decades ago. And we are a world superpower with no equal.
But prosperity mixed with apathy is a recipe for decline. Americans must never forget the sacrifices that have been made so that we may always be free.
Only through remembrance do we have the capacity to avoid the mistakes of our past, to treat those who have served with dignity, and those who will serve with dignity.
I remember my service fondly.
A farm boy from the Rolling Plains of West Texas, I began an eye-opening journey as a C-130 pilot in the United States Air Force.
My service took me to the amazing sites of Europe and the Middle East where I observed different cultures and different traditions. What I soon learned is that there is no place like America.
There is no place that gives greater value to individual freedom, to service to your fellow man, to important virtues like strong families and close communities.
America is a special land, a place of courageous people. Generations of Americans have risen up to defend the wonderful ideal of freedom, recognizing that freedom is only precious if you have the resolve and moral indignation to defeat those who would suppress it.
Over the course of the last century, young soldiers in the dawn of their lives considered the calling of liberty to be an ideal greater than personal safety as they set sail on vessels that would take them to foreign lands and an uncertain fate.
For many, it would be their last trip across the ocean as they enshrined foreign soil with the sacrifice of their blood.
One such soldier was Captain Ed Land of Houston, Mississippi, who was so anxious to engage in the war that he joined up with the Royal Canadian Air Force and headed off to England in November of 1941. One of his letters home to his brother Frank appears in the recently published book titled “War Letters”, compiled by Andrew Carroll.
Please allow me to read a portion of it: “In 45 minutes I’ll be eating and filling myself full of hot tea to last me through the night. Shortly after, I’ll be roaring down the runway and climbing slowly into the gathering darkness, those little red lights there on the ground flicking away behind me until they are all at last from sight.
“Behind me, and with me, my crew will be going about their duties, all enveloped in the black curtain of the night that is around us, and holding us there in its bosom. All is quiet except for the sweet, steady drone of my engines, and the whisper of the radio waves coming through my earphones. Before me, my instruments, my controls, my love, my life.
“Ahead of us all what? Only God could say. I know I don’t have much longer to live. Don’t ask me how I know or can say that, I’m just being fatalistic. I can see it and feel it around and about me.
“My pals, one of these mornings will all be sitting down to breakfast without me. A few empty chairs – someone raising his eyebrow in silent query – someone else nodding in silent confirmation. A moment’s reverent silence and quiet; then all will continue as before.”
Captain Land was right, about five months later his plane plummeted into the ocean just off the coast of Denmark, he was never to be seen again.
Last summer, I returned with my father to one of the grandest monuments of loving sacrifice: the beaches of Normandy.
We saw the hundred-foot cliffs that Earl Rudder’s Rangers scaled in the face of enemy fire. We saw the remnants of the enemy fortifications – the German pillboxes – that represented the front wall of oppression of the European Continent.
We walked through the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, observing the endless rows of white crosses and Stars of David that mark the remains of thousands of young American soldiers who rest in eternal peace.
On those hallowed grounds, you can hear their memories whispering in the wind, telling a solemn story never to be forgotten.
Returning to a place my father had not seen since the time he was a 19-year old tailgunner on a B-17 was an amazing experience.
At the same time, it is hard to know exactly what he was thinking, because like so many of his generation, he does not talk about it much.
Perhaps it sparked memories of young lives hardly lived…the perturbing question of “why him and not me?” or perhaps he saw in his mind’s eye the smile of a liberated French child who could once again dream about tomorrow.
Such acts of heroism, not just by our World War II generation, but by the men and women of World War I, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Bosnia, they are hard to appropriately recognize with words.
But while we can never fully repay our debt of gratitude to such brave souls like those in this room today, it is our duty to never forget what you have done, and to honor your great sacrifices as long as you shall live.
This last legislative session, I was proud of two things we did in particular for our veterans in Texas.
First, I signed a bill that authorizes the Texas Veterans Land Board to create up to 7 additional cemeteries in Texas, meaning more veterans will be buried closer to home.
Critical to funding that effort is a constitutional amendment that voters will decide upon this November.
If approved, this amendment will allow the state to transfer excess funds from the Veterans Land Fund and the Veterans Housing Funds to a Veterans State Cemetery Fund. That money will be used to maintain and operate new cemeteries.
The efforts of our Texas veterans in promoting this amendment are critical to its passage, I would encourage you to make your case to Texas voters.
Secondly, we honored those World War II veterans who left to serve overseas in the war effort before finishing their high school coursework.
Because of a new law in Texas, World War II veterans who never had the chance to finish high school can now get that diploma they have long deserved.
There are a lot of reasons we must honor and remember our nation’s veterans. First and foremost, because this nation made an unbreachable contract with each and every one of you in return for your service. It is the right thing to do!
Secondly, young men and women will judge the value of their service – even whether to serve – based on the dignity with which we treat the former soldier.
Lastly, only in remembering do we have the capacity to prevent past tragedies from visiting the citizens of the world…and only by preventing future wars do we fully honor those who died so others would not have to.
Let me share one final thought with you. Having won two world wars, and the subsequent Cold War, we must not forget that while the world has changed, there are those who would still seek to extinguish the lamp of freedom if we let our guard down.
That’s why I think President Bush is 100% right, America must pursue development of a missile defense shield so that the freedom we enjoy is not jeopardized by the attack of a rogue nation.
And President Bush is right about another thing: the morale and readiness of our military should not, and cannot, take a back seat when the Congress funds priorities.
The relative peace of our time is not a justification for military cutbacks, it is an affirmation that we must always be ready to defend our values, our friends, and the cause of freedom.
I think often about what must have entered the minds of our citizen soldiers in times of war, those young boys who ran across foreign beaches and foreign fields amidst withering enemy fire, who huddled in frozen foxholes wondering if the next shell would land too close, who took flight or took to the sea not knowing if it was their last voyage.
I say “they”, when in many cases I really mean “you.” Many of you were there when your nation needed you the most.
Certainly you must have asked the question: is this worth it? Is this worth me risking my whole life at the age of 19, 20, or 21, and if so, will I be remembered for the deeds I have done?
It is often said, “in peace, children bury their fathers, in war fathers bury their children.”
Laurence Binyon once wrote about the courage of the young soldier in “Poems for the Fallen.” It reads:
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
“Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”
I am here today to say to those who gave life and limb, those who served with honor because your nation called, we remember you.
We remember what you endured and what you suffered so we might not, and we are honored to share the American heritage, and the American Ideal, for which you shed your blood.
I wear this American Legion hat with great pride, but also with tremendous humility. There are millions who never were so blessed to come home and wear it..who never had the privilege of raising a family, who never experienced a world at peace.
They left us so young, so virtuous. May they rest in eternal peace. And may the old soldiers in this room here today be remembered for what you have done for the remainder of your days on earth and beyond.
Thank you, and God bless each and every one of you.
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