Yesterday, I wrote about Memorial Day. My nephew, Brendan O’Donnell, was asked to address his community’s gathering in Connecticut, and I was curious what he would say.
Here’s the speech he gave, a 17-year-old high school junior.
It’s an honor for me to appear before you today. As a high school junior in Connecticut, I have not experienced war. Instead, I have experienced the joys and benefits of living in the peaceful town of Simsbury, in the prosperous state of Connecticut. I want to start my remarks by sharing with you, briefly, the excellent life that this community has given me. I can give you a sense of this by describing what I did on the typical day of Wednesday, April 15, 2009. I woke up as usual at 6:30 and groggily got out of bed to prepare myself for school. I started my day in jazz ensemble, my first class, where we rehearsed for a concert. Later in the day, I studied Pre-calculus, Spanish, and Chemistry, going over homework and preparing for tests. In U.S. History, we discussed the civil rights movement. Finally, in English, we shared vignettes that we had written. That afternoon was equally uneventful and fairly relaxing. I did some homework. I had a trumpet lesson. And then I went back to the high school for the National Honor Society induction ceremony. I went to sleep early that night, tired but excited. I was thinking about my April vacation, which was going to start that Friday with a music department trip to Europe.
I was not thinking of war or death. I had no way of knowing that, while I was relaxing in the safety of my home here in Tariffville, a young American soldier was dying in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan.
Private First Class Richard A. Dewater and his platoon were on patrol when they were ambushed. After exchanging pleasantries with an Afghan elder they had met on the trail, the platoon descended a stone staircase into a valley and crossed a narrow foot bridge. Private Dewater was the sixth man over the bridge. When he began walking up the trail on the other side of the river, Taliban forces detonated a bomb beneath his feet. The enormous explosion sent rock and dirt everywhere. The Taliban immediately fired on the American troops, separated from their colleagues by the river. Bullets flew in the valley, followed by mortars and then bombs dropped from American planes. When the firing stopped, the Americans made the hard discovery that their friend and colleague, Private Dewater of Topeka, Kansas, had died in the initial blast. He was serving with the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Hood, Texas.
Private Dewater was 21 years old when he died. He was only four years older than I am today. He is one of numerous Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the two wars that are continuing even as we speak here. Thirty-six members of the military from Connecticut, more than 200 from New York, more than 90 from Massachusetts, and hundreds from other states have perished in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among the thirty-six from Connecticut was Sgt. Felix M. Delgreco, a 22-year-old from Simsbury who died in Baghdad on April 9, 2004.
Private Dewater was the fourth member of Second Platoon to be killed over the course of the previous nine months.
I read his story in the paper, and it made me realize how often we Americans take for granted our freedom. American soldiers have fought to preserve their freedom many times. The Revolutionary War, World War I, and World War II are only three examples of the many wars in which Americans fought to preserve their freedom. However, the one thing that all these wars have in common is that they are all over. They are all material for history books, things that students like me learn about as past events. We comprehend these wars through textbooks and films. In any case, these wars seem remote. They are over. For my generation, even the Cold War is a distant event. Oftentimes, we fail to realize that even today on May 25, 2009, soldiers are still fighting to preserve our freedom. Private Dewater died in the ongoing war against the Taliban, the fundamentalist religious and political group that controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the group that supported Al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001.
I discussed Memorial Day with my father’s friend Nick, who earned a Purple Heart as a platoon leader in Vietnam. He told me that every year on Memorial Day, he does the same thing. He visits the veteran’s cemetery in his town. He reads every tombstone, remembering every soldier buried there who died to protect the United States of America. He thinks back to his days in Vietnam and remembers the soldiers under his command that he fought alongside. He remembers those who never made it back to America alive, those who gave their very lives to protect the country that they loved. He remembers Angel Gonzalez, a young man in his platoon from Puerto Rico, who was willing to face danger and was always alert for risks, but who perished on patrol. He thinks of other colleagues he lost in Vietnam. “The people who die are your friends,” he told me.
Memorial Day is more than just a day off from school or work, more than just a day of parades and ice cream and cookouts. It is a day of remembrance. It is a day to remember those soldiers who died in the service of their country. It is a day to remember those who fought in all the past wars that our country has suffered through. It is also a day to recognize the sacrifice that soldiers are still making today. It is a day to remember soldiers like Private Dewater who are giving up their lives to protect the freedoms that make possible the comfort that we enjoy here in Simsbury.
So today, enjoy the parades, enjoy the ice cream and cookouts, but also please take a moment to remember those soldiers who died in service of their country. Remember not only those soldiers who died in the wars of the past but also those who are dying in the wars of the present, those wars that have not yet made it into the history textbooks. Remember Private Richard A. Dewater, the 21-year-old soldier who died in Afghanistan just over a month ago. Remember Sgt. Delgreco of Simsbury. And remember those soldiers who you never knew but who died to protect your freedoms all the same. Don’t forget: this is not just a day off or the last day of a long weekend. This is a day of remembrance. Thank you.