May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
American GIs entering the British outpost of Gibraltar during World War II often passed the verse carved into the gates into the city. The words read, “God and the soldier all men adore in times of trouble, but no more. For when war is ended and all things righted, God is neglected, the old soldier slighted.”
Annual, at this season, we gather to dispute, to refute those reproachful words.
We pray to God. We honor our veterans. We thank their families.
Tomorrow, national leaders will gather at Arlington National Cemetery across the river, as will all across America in other national cemeteries, and other national places of patriotism will families, veterans and respectful citizens to observe Veteran’s Day.
They, and we, will reflect on our nation’s wars, salute those who have served, and renew our vow to continue the nation’s goal of peace at home and peace abroad.
In past years we have been able during this season to reflect upon the more than half century of domestic tranquility secured for us by men and women, by generations of men and women in uniform. This year, however, the thought of war is much with us. Talk of war is in the air. Fourteen short months ago our domestic security was pierced in the most traumatic of ways. Countless lives of unsuspecting and defenseless citizens were abruptly ended by the savage destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and by the attack on the Pentagon here in the Nation’s Capitol.
In reply, elements of the nation’s armed forces as part of a coalition of forces, entered the airspace and the ground space of a foreign nation, evicted its government and those there who had supported the attacks on our nation, and brought to justice some of those who were seized.
Last Friday the Security Council of the United Nations unanimously passed a resolution calling on another nation to comply immediately with the provisions for an arm’s inspection regime, that were part of a treaty that ended Desert Storm more than a decade ago. By the terms of the Resolution, Iraq has one week in which to indicate its complete and unconditional intention to comply.
Once again, then, our nation’s men and women in uniform may be called to offer themselves for the country, for their countrymen and countrywomen and for our allies.
We know that America’s uniform personnel will respond as veterans have responded in behalf of this nation at every other time in our nation’s history. The honor roll of our veterans’ service during those times is lengthy and distinguished.
The offensive in the Argonne Forest, Corregidor, the Batan Peninsula, Anzio, Normandy, Iwo Jima, the Inchon Landing, the Pusan Perimeter, the Chosen Reservoir, the Tet Offensive, Kezon, Mekong Delta, Just Cause, Somalia, Operation Desert Storm, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and many deployments both during and one or two since.
We gather not to glorify war, but here in this National House of Prayer for All People, to pray. To pray for those who have sacrificed. To pray that their families will be comforted by the gratitude of the nation. And to pray that the sacrifice of those who did not return will serve as a national example of that love of which our Lord and Savior said, “There is none greater.”
And tomorrow, Veteran’s Day, we will have another purpose as well. To learn again the lessons of our veterans’ service to this nation. That this nation has stood for more than two and a quarter centuries because in many far places under difficult and dangerous circumstances our veterans have stood for her. To learn that even with the armed might of our armed forces is the high-mindedness, the nobility, yes, even the purity of our national purposes that has placed this nation in the role of world leader. And that will assure our continued progress as a nation and as a people.
And to learn that the experiences of our veterans, the service of our men and women in uniform provides a window into the very spirit of this nation. In early years of my time as Secretary of the Army I found myself aboard an Army jet—yes there are Army jets — flying south to Nassau, the Bahamas, where I boarded a Navy cod and flew out to the nuclear attack aircraft carrier, USS Eisenhower. She was steaming towards a rendezvous just off Haitian waters. As I landed, instead of the normal teams and other naval tactical aircraft on the deck of an aircraft carrier I saw Blackhawks, Army helicopters. They were the aviation element of the 10th Mountain Division, which in a precedent, breaking deployment, were deployed aboard that aircraft carrier. They seemed to belong to the hanger deck where the Division itself was gathered, each of them, young men and women with their grizzled veteran NCOs, their officers, were prepared for what they thought could well be an entry into Haiti under fire.
I was led to a make-shift desk there on the hanger deck and placed in front of the largest American flag I’d ever—well, almost the largest I’ve ever seen—I saw one larger in front of a used car dealership in Norfolk one time! — But nonetheless, a large American flag. And there asked to sing words of encouragement to those who would, as far as they knew and as far as we could anticipate, might enter combat within 24 hours.
The three American negotiators, former President Jimmy Carter, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs at that time, Colin Powell, and Senator Sam Nun, were present there negotiating with the three thugs who control that country. And we awaited only the all-clear signal that they had left before giving the orders to launch. And as you might suspect, I was probably the last person they should have asked to offer words of encouragement. Their officers were there to lead them. Their NCOs were there to assure that they would do their best under fire. But the thinking was that it would be useful for these men and women in uniform to hear from the civilians back home whom they were defending, to know that what they were doing was known and understood and supported.
I reminded them of some conversations I had had the previous day in Washington, D.C. One person said, “Please let them know that when armed forces of the United States enter foreign air space or territorial waters of another nation, they do not represent America. They ARE America.” So, if an Air Force or a Navy pilot conducts himself with extraordinary valor, it is America’s valor on display. If a Marine or soldier, reaches to remove a civilian out of harm’s way or to rescue a man that’s shot, America extends that helping hand. And if, God forbid, one is wounded, America falls upon the ground, America’s blood is spilled, America stumbles before righting herself to continue the mission.
John Dunn said it best. “No man is an island, complete and entire of itself.” Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Every veteran, every service member is a part of the very same whole of every American, the very same one national under God, the very same free, optimistic, often exuberant, confident and voluntary association, often like-minded, but certainly democratically minded people we call our nation.
So then, let us remember that Veterans Day is not for veterans alone. It is a day for obligation for every one of us, to honor our veterans, to thank them and their families for their patriotism, to thank God that they have lived among us.
It is also a day to look at ourselves as a nation through the eyes of their experience. Look through the eyes of a veteran who wrote one hundred years ago, “In our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn that life was a profound and passionate thing. Above and beyond the golden fields, we have glimpsed the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to carry the report to those who will come after.”
Most of all we have learned that the greatest success it is a person’s to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart. Know that our veterans have served this nation with hearts made mighty by dedication and love of country. Know that they have served with faith, the faith that like God’s precious gift to all of us is important as is the chance to live it in peace. The faith that a nation whose principles are justice and fairness and liberty, and equality, is a nation worth preserving. And a faith, the undying faith, that their service, their willingness to offer their lives for their comrades and their country, will be valued by their countrymen. Remembered by their nation and looked upon with love and compassion by their God.
God bless them then. God bless all who have served this nation. And still serve in the uniform of our people. And bless those who love them and whom they love, and on this somewhat cloudy day here on Mt. St. Albans, and on many such days in the future, whether in good times or times of social or economic challenge, whether in peace—for which we all pray—or in war if war must come.
Make God bless as well the dear, the noble nation which the world knows is America and which we are uniquely privileged to call our home.