What it Means to Give One's Life - My Statement on Veterans Day
About two years ago I was driving in my car radio listening to WBUR which was broadcasting the Flag Day ceremonies at the Massachusetts Statehouse and I found myself listening to a World War II veteran who was talking about the friends in his unit who had died in combat.
As I remember it, he described each one of them – Tommy with the buck teeth, Chris the redhead, Jimmy from Southie, and many others. They were just a year past being boys and they had the happy and restless traits of fired-up youth. It was already clear what kind of men they were going to become when they got home.
And then, without warning, they violently lost their lives.
“What does it mean to ‘lose your life’?” The speaker asked. “It means that these boys never got to do all of the things that have made up our lives.”
There was no chance, he continued, to come home to a welcoming family, no chance to find a job or go to college, no finding a sweetheart to court and marry, no buying a home with a garage to tinker in, no raising a family, no going to their kids’ Little League Games or to Fenway Park, no reaching the end of the career with the wistful sense of accomplishment and diminishing time that comes with aging.
“That’s what a life is,” he said, “all of those small and wonderful steps. And they gave away those lives – all those experiences that we enjoy every day. They gave them away….” He paused to hold back his tears. “…for us.”
I had to pull over to think and to grieve. This portrait of his friends, each of whom were preparing for decades chockfull of possibility and color but were instead snuffed into immediate and permanent darkness touched me deeply. It made me realize, again, the pain, the valor, the senselessness, the tragedy, and the heroism that come with war.
Because I could not walk as a boy, there was no chance that I could join the military. But I come from a long chain of veterans. One of my ancestors was a general in the American Revolution. Another was a math teacher from New York who enlisted in the Union Army with all of his students and was wounded at Antietam. I have to face the uncomfortable truth that I also had many cousins and ancestors from another side of the family who grew up in Virginia and died in the defense of the slavery and Confederacy. My great-grandfather was a US Army Supply Officer in the Spanish-American War, and his son, my grandfather, also served as an Army captain in World War I.
My father, a well-known author who has written many books about war and conflict, was himself a Navy lieutenant and intelligence officer who spent five years during the Korean War on the aircraft carrier USS WASP.
Wars are huge, brutal, devastating events – so terrible that we often block them from recall. But on Veterans Day we must remember – in order to honor those who have died and to learn how never to go through this again.
And, most important, we must remember and support those who came home alive but found that their lives have permanently been damaged by the experience.
As we have transitioned to voluntary enlistment, our armed forces often come from the ranks of society seeking training, employment, respect, and purpose. Many come low-income families and from communities of color. With few exceptions, the recruits do not come from the ranks of our elites. And this means that it is easy for those elites – whose children are leading very different and much safer lives – to forget about the deep value and the sacrificial cost of military service.
That must stop. If they could fight for us over there, the least we can do is fight for them over here.
We must urgently address these sobering facts:
American veterans suffer a lack of adequate health care and economic opportunity. Our returning soldiers suffer chronic delays in medical treatment and economic exploitation.
A disproportionate number of the homeless and incarcerated, including 10% of death-row inmates, are veterans.
Almost five hundred thousand servicemen and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer nightmares, flashbacks, depression or suicidal thoughts.
And, incredibly, every day 20 veterans actually commit suicide – driven by a despair so deep that they take their own lives.
As governor, I will work tirelessly to ensure fair and equal access to medical and mental health care, better training, and better services. We will make sure that the families of active duty serviceman and servicewomen on deployment are supported here at home. We will make sure that veterans have the opportunities to transition back to civilian life as smoothly and completely as possible.
And most important, we will not forget. It is essential to our democracy and to our humanity to remember the costs that others have born for us.
As President John F. Kennedy said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” And for all those of us who enjoy the freedoms purchased at such a high price, acting on the basis of our deepest values is how we should, in their honor, live our lives from today forward.