EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, minus its ceremonial portions, I share excerpts of a speech delivered Saturday by CMSgt. John Stewart (Ret., USAF) at a Veterans Day commemoration event in Inverness, Fla. Chief Stewart is a veteran of more than three decades of service in Air Force Special Operations that included service in Vietnam. He is also the father of former Army Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Kelly A. Stewart, the man whose wrongful conviction is chronicled in my book, “Three Days In August: A U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier’s Fight For Military Justice.”
Good afternoon to you my fellow veterans, to our dignitaries present here today, and especially to the Citizen Patriots who came here to honor and remember our nation’s heroes.
I thank you so much for this opportunity.
My wife and I returned a couple weeks ago from a camping trip on our first real vacation in nearly 15 years.
Part of our vacation was spent in Branson, Mo., to see their fantastic entertainment which was truly wonderful. I found something else remarkable about Branson.
It was one of the most patriotic places I have ever visited.
Every show we attended made a point of honoring veterans in attendance. Most business signs and theater marquees in town always include something like, “Thank You Veterans for Serving” or “God Bless Our Veterans.” This occurs in Branson every day of the year.
As it should be done, all across America every day.
Even their city park was converted to a beautiful veterans tribute with, monuments and flag lined walkways with red, white and blue flowers. Something that would be really nice to see right here in Inverness.
While in Branson I wore my old golf hat that has a Vietnam Veteran logo on the front. In doing so waiters, theme park workers, and tourists, heck people galore, were continually coming up to me when they saw my hat, to say… thanks for serving our country. It was a great feeling.
All that display of Branson patriotism kinda got to me, particularly as Veterans Day and this ceremony approached. On the drive home I gave some serious thought about patriotism around our country and how good, or bad, ALL of America supports veterans…. not only today, but in past decades.
I realized during our long drive back to Florida that somehow we had begun over the past 30 to 35 years to lose some of our inner spirit in this country.
I also realized that many in our great nation were forgetting patriotism and, what is truly sad, more and more they were forgetting our military veterans, especially those in need. If it continues in this vain our future looks very, very bleak.
It is why I stand here today to speak to you. I am deeply concerned about the upcoming budget cuts, planned reductions in forces, and the many other military changes currently in planning stages of our government that without a doubt will impact an already existing flawed veterans support system. Without continued emphasis on supporting those who served our country in uniform I fear we will be forgotten. That must not occur. THEY MUST REMEMBER US!
I will personally always remember those who served America, no matter the service branch, no matter the era, no matter the war.
For example, I remember June 6, 1944! Better known as D-Day.
At dawn, Army Rangers jumped off a landing craft and ran to the bottom of cliffs along white beaches that had been turned red from the blood of heroes. Their mission was to climb sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns trained on the beaches with a mission to destroy our troops and equipment.
The Rangers looked up at a horrific scene. Enemy soldiers at edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades.
But the Rangers shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up through the withering fire and explosions.
The heroes began to climb. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another one and begin his climb, again, through hell.
Finally, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of those cliffs, they began to take back the continent of Europe from a dictatorship of hell itself.
Two-hundred and twenty-five Rangers climbed the cliffs that day.
After two days of fighting, only 90 of those original 225 heroes could still hold a weapon.
They trusted that we would ALWAYS REMEMBER their heroism.
However, does America really remember sacrifices of those Rangers, or the millions of other military personnel who sacrificed everything in the past 236 years to maintain the freedoms provided by our wonderful Constitution?
Sure, moments like today and Memorial Day we always seem to remember, but I do not believe that memory exists year-round.
And there could be many reasons why I believe this has occurred. I know we are exhausted of war after a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan that, even today, has no true end in sight.
That fact, alone, could lead us to forgetfulness.
However, I think I know when we really began to forget our heroes…
It was the politics and tragedy during, and in the aftermath, of the Vietnam War that caused America to do so.
I was there, and it was a war from hell, fought in hell, and America’s citizens put their heads in the sand to forget. Unfortunately some of America dishonored our veterans here at home while veterans were fighting in that hell.
Most of America dishonored them when they returned home.
And by doing so… America dishonored all citizens who have served in uniform at any time in our history.
It was not that America did not care. We just did not want to know… or remember… or honor… or, sadly, even help our Vietnam veterans.
We forgot that over 11,000 of the names on the Vietnam Wall in Washington are 19 years old or younger.
We forgot that 75,000 Vietnam Veterans were severely disabled.
For example let’s use the actual 2010 population figures of Inverness as a comparison and pretend that every citizen in our town served in the Vietnam War. Seventy-three percent of our town would have lost an arm or leg. Fifteen percent of us would have sustained multiple amputations.
Those terrible disabilities would not be the only impact upon us here. Fourteen percent of Inverness would have been killed on their first day in the Vietnam War.
Despite those horrendous statistics, America has looked away for decades.
As example, in 2008 it was reported that our country had 154,000 homeless veterans and America complacently accepted recent atrocious Veterans Administration bragging that things are improving and “ONLY” 60,000 veterans are homeless today. They did not brag that one-third of all homeless in this country are veterans.
But VA’s leadership quickly brags everyday about many things. Such as a supposed improvement in areas like veteran unemployment, homelessness, claims improvement, medical support, etc, etc., etc. They talk a good game but I haven’t seen many touchdowns.
VA ALSO DID NOT BRAG THAT 47 PERCENT OF THE HOMELESS VETS ARE VIETNAM ERA VETERANS.
After the Vietnam War, our heroes returned to a country that was weary and complacent.
The war had finally and tragically come to an end.
It was over and we indulged ourselves in the notion that the world was now safe.
A booming economy was going to be ample substitute for a strong military and we could reduce our forces and forget them.
Somehow we came to accept a belief that freedom under God was free and, if not, we could buy it.
At the same time politics became a toilet bowl operation and we seemed to think that by electing self-serving, uncaring, military hating politicians it would not harm us as a nation.
Why? Because we stupidly believed there was little need any more to maintain vigilance towards the world’s bad guys. A strong military was no longer needed.
Peace had arrived in America. Veterans didn’t need us and they could take care of themselves.
Peace existed on our planet.
Obviously peace did not arrive judging by the events of 9/11, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and the recent attack on our consulate in Libya killing our ambassador and others.
We completely forgot that price of freedom has always been eternal vigilance backed by a strong military that is prepared to prevent war.
Not start war, my fellow citizens… a military to prevent it.
But it must be a military that America totally supports. A military that is remembered and honored.
And it must be a military that America promises to take care of when they return home. Including families that have suffered for so long from so many deployments or even loss of their loved one.
We are not fulfilling promises.
Abraham Lincoln made a promise to veterans. He said our country would take care of them, but it is a commitment that is failing in many, many areas.
For example, take a look at supposed programs that would combat suicide among our military personnel.
Suicide rates in our military are off the scale. In June it was announced we were averaging one active duty or reserve military suicide per day during 2012. That number has since increased to new records. The Army’s Chief of Staff recently said that suicide is the most frequent cause of death among Army forces, surpassing combat deaths and motor vehicle accidents combined. The suicide rate for the Army is up 15 percent over last year. For the Marine Corps it’s up 28 percent. The entire military’s across the board suicide rate is up 22 percent from last year. 38 active duty and reserve heroes took their lives in July, alone.
I could find no statistics for those who have been discharged, but it must be astronomical.
However, I could find statistics for post-traumatic stress disorder, better known as PTSD, which is a major cause of veteran’s suicides.
Millions of Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan; on as many as 7 tours of duty in the wars and I am sure there are more tours to come.
A recent VA report revealed that nearly 30 percent of veterans who served in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that have been treated at VA hospitals were diagnosed with PTSD. Yet many people in this country have forgotten them. Even worse, our government is forgetting them. Headlines seem to appear every single day in the Chronicle concerning budget cuts on our military.
Those same headlines seem to continually report about the Veterans Administration’s struggles to help our troops.
I’ve asked myself, WHY IS THIS HAPPENING IN OUR VA?
Unfortunately, I think I know why. It is not the every day worker in VA diligently trying to get the job done that is causing our problems. Despite having to deal with poor management and outdated procedures, VA has some tremendous people doing their best to help us. As example, we are extremely fortunate right here in Citrus County to have Chuck Fettes, Sam Dinnino and their staff at our County Veterans Service Office who work hard to support veterans.
But the VA has over 300,000 employees around the country, second largest branch in the Federal Government and veterans should be completely taken care of. It is not happening.
Listen to this example. About two weeks ago a former special assistant to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs said, “I’ve just never seen an organization that has so much money and so many employees, and such incompetence.”
I believe incompetence comes from failed leadership and failed management.
As example, since 2005, the VA has held over 1,600 employee conferences, if you can believe it, while spending, if you can also believe it, an estimated $300 million. That works out to a conference every one and a half days.
The most expensive meeting totaled a jaw-dropping $6.3 million… In an ironic twist, the title of that conference was, “Financial Management Training.”
Obviously, the Veterans Administration cannot fulfill Abe Lincoln’s promise. Some of it is has been caused by budget cuts. But, it is compounded by poor management, unrealistic paperwork, nearly a million backlogged compensation claims, and a huge influx of veterans needing help after so many deployments.
This is absolutely and positively wrong!
Veterans DO NOT DESERVE government red tape.
Veterans DO NOT DESERVE government budget cuts.
Veterans DO NOT DESERVE government broken promises.
Veterans DO DESERVE to get prompt high-quality medical care.
Veterans DO DESERVE to get rapid responses to their compensation and benefit claims.
And our government must make damn sure those who return from battle that are prone to PTSD, divorce, and suicide, GET THE HELP AND COUNSELING THEY NEED.
It is our government’s responsibility to take care of her veterans.
WE VETERANS TOOK CARE OF OUR GOVERNMENT!
Yes, we must honor and take care of those serving today, but at the same time those we have lost must be remembered by America.
Not just on holidays but very single day of the year!
President Ronald Reagan once said, “Most of those who died in defense of our country were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives – the one they were living, and the one they would have lived. They gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers…. They gave up everything for their country – for us.”
All we can do is remember.”
And we must start remembering before it is too late.
One very important thing we must remember is that our country is only as strong as our people. We must remain resolved and focused while being prepared to fight for freedom and, if necessary, commit wholeheartedly to fighting for that freedom.
This includes defeating today’s enemy. An enemy best described as an animal. An animal becoming stronger and smarter every single day. An animal that because of misguided ideology uses unbelievable methods on a daily basis to kill our troops. Even if it means killing or maiming their own innocent men, women and children in the process.
They will put on a uniform that America bought for them, we then train them, and they pretend to be our ally and friend. Then, as only a coward would do, they kill our young soldiers with a shot in the head from behind. Over 55 Coalition troops have been killed in 2012 by those we thought were our allies.
Simply said, our enemy is an animal that demands we accept their rule of ideology.
Nothing more, nothing less.
You may think you are far removed from those animals down here in our little paradise. But, Inverness is as much at risk for an attack as New York and Washington, D.C.
Given the opportunity for another 9/11 atrocity, our merciless enemy would do it today, tomorrow, and every day thereafter.
It could happen anywhere, anyplace, anytime.
The only stopgap from that happening is a strong military. But it must be one totally, and absolutely, supported by our citizens. People like you patriots who came today and, Ladies and Gentlemen, I commend you for taking the time to be here. From the bottom of my heart and all veterans present we thank you. But, we must consider one point.
We have over 140,000 citizens in Citrus County and we should have standing room only, clear down to the lake and out to Gospel Island.
That did not happen today and it is indicative of how many in our America continue to forget us, to honor us and to support us.
Where are the missing people today? Watching football?
Perhaps at the Homosassa Seafood Festival?
Maybe down the road at the Citrus County Builders Association Show?
I’d like to know who in the hell has the audacity to schedule such events at a time when they should be honoring America’s heroes? I am sure they have an excuse, but there is no excuse as far as I am concerned for dishonoring us in this fashion.
Do they care?
Or, are they continuing to put their heads in the sand instead of remembering and honoring those who served and are serving our country? I’ll let you decide.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have been truly honored to be selected to appear here today and given the opportunity to speak to you from my heart. I’ve tried to tell you how veterans who served our country are being unfairly treated.
Because of that stance, I simply can’t leave this podium with the usual generic Veterans Day speech signoff.
It would be unfair to those here today that at their moment in our history and at a moment in your history raised a right hand, put on a uniform and swore to offer their lives to maintain our freedoms.
It also would be unfair to those who have lost their lives defending world freedom.
We need to let those who DID NOT come today to know that…
YOU GREAT CITIZENS DID COME.
AND THAT YOU AS AMERICAN PATRIOTS DO CARE.
AND THEY WHO DID NOT COME MUST DO SO IN THE FUTURE!
In a moment, I am going to introduce you to the veterans present here by having them stand up by branch of service to be honored.
I ask that you remain silent as they stand, even after all are standing. You will have a chance later to acknowledge their service.
By their standing in silence for a couple moments before we acknowledge their service it will symbolize a personal salute by us to our brothers in arms that have been hospitalized, lost, or are being held as prisoner of war.
It will also show OUR SADNESS AS MILITARY VETERANS that so many in Citrus County did not come to honor us today but chose to go to a builder’s show, eat seafood, or watch football on TV.
May the Lord Bless each of you, may He watch over our troops in harm’s way and may He continue to Bless the United States of America.