Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Valor: A Tribute to Veterans

| November 9, 2023 1:00 AM

Gathered in twos and threes, the crowd waited. Some, an old military jacket; others, a baseball cap with the name of a Navy ship. The sun was on the right side of warm, a gentle breeze shuffling the leaves.

With rows of white marble headstones adorned by U.S. flags in the background, the speaker quietly began the story of a young private, Robert C. Burke, and his Marine Corps unit as they walked in the tall grass through the woods on Go Noi Island in Vietnam.

Told at a Memorial Day tribute — a time to remember those who gave their lives — the message of service, honor and valor is universal every day, but perhaps more so on Veterans Day, a time dedicated to thanking veterans for their service and sacrifices.

The speaker told how, as the young Marines walked along, artillery fire from heavy mortars began raining down on the unit, killing Burke’s captain and several platoon leaders. Realizing their attackers had to be taken out for the unit to advance, Burke grabbed his machine gun and launched a series of one-man assaults against the enemy fortifications, killing three North Vietnamese soldiers.

When his machine gun jammed, Burke grabbed a rifle and several hand grenades and continued his efforts to quiet the hostile fire, killing several more North Vietnamese soldiers.

“He laid down a heavy line of fire along the trees until his injuries got the best of him,” Bryan Hult, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, told the crowd. “He died where he fell. Fifteen other men died; 50 were injured. Burke’s heroic actions saved the lives of many more. He was 18 years old. He was the youngest person from the Vietnam era to win the Medal of Honor.”

Veterans Day got its start as Armistice Day following the end of World War I, when an unknown American soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Similar ceremonies occurred earlier in England and France, where an unknown soldier was buried in each nation’s highest place of honor, from Westminster Abbey to the Arc de Triomphe.

The ceremonies all took place on November 11, 1918, giving universal recognition to the end of World War I at 11 a.m. (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month).

The name would later be changed to Veterans Day to recognize the service of all veterans from all wars. 

In the U.S., the focal point for Veterans Day tributes continues to be the memorial amphitheater built around the Tomb of the Unknowns, where at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, a combined color guard representing all military services executes “Present Arms” and a presidential wreath is laid at the tomb, symbolizing the nation’s tribute to its war dead as "Taps" is played.

But going back to Private Burke, why talk about something that happened on a faraway, long-ago battlefield, brought up at a Memorial Day tribute?

Remembering the one, helps us remember the other.

Each day, countless men and women serve far away from those they love, watching special moments through the tiny screen of a laptop or cellphone. 

“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. “There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.”

It is those brave men and women who pay for our freedoms. From those who just signed their name on recruitment papers to serve to those who just hung up their dog tags for the last time, we owe them all our thanks.

Perhaps President Harry S. Truman said it best.

“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.”


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