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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two teenagers who I love very much. I currently volunteer at the battlefield and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. These words often add a degree of color and character not found elsewhere in their stories. A feature of this blog is the presentation of some of these quotes. My perspective comes from a 28 year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign that fortune could have gone either way. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Memorial Day - On Keeping Faith

I was privileged to stand today on the rostrum at Antietam National Cemetery where for the last 145 years, the town of Sharpsburg has honored Memorial Day.  I was the keynote speaker for the wreath laying ceremony.  Here are my remarks today.


Superintendent Trail,  Mayor Spielman, other distinguished guests, fellow veterans, friends and citizens. 

It is truly a great honor to be accorded the privilege of paying tribute to the service of my comrades in arms past and present.  When I think of all those who have come before me to this very special place on Memorial Days in years past, I am proud and humbled to be included in their company.  This moment will be a memory that I will always treasure.

Today we stand at this place made sacred in our history by the sacrifice of thousands of Americans, north and south far from home and family.  In our entire history as a free nation, men and women have answered their countries call and placed themselves in harms way to defend our freedom and way of life.  The cost is great.  In every generation only fond memories remain of the loved ones who never returned from war.  Today we mourn their loss and honor their memory by the decoration of their graves with flags.

My father was an Army corporal in World War Two in the Pacific theater poised for the invasion of Japan. Two atomic bombs spared us that invasion and perhaps saved my fathers life.  Sixty-five years later, his grandson, my son is a lance corporal in the Marine Corps, destined later this year for deployment to the Pacific or perhaps elsewhere.  (If you are wondering why I stood for the Marine Corps anthem as well as the Army song just a few minutes ago, I stood for my son Jim.)   Here I am between my father and my son.  My service was during what we ironically call the Cold War, a time of our history where we in fact engaged in combat operations many times.  It was definitely not a period known for its pacific tendencies.  In October 1983, a suicide bomber attacked and destroyed the Marine Barracks in Beirut Lebanon.  I was a captain on the headquarters staff of the 82nd Airborne Division at the time.  With the news from Lebanon, we instantly went on alert and the next day we boarded aircraft fully outfitted for parachute assault.  But we didn’t head for Lebanon.  Instead, our destination was to the south, to the Caribbean island of Grenada off the coast of Venezuela.  It was an operation called Urgent Fury, mostly forgotten on the pages of history by all BUT those who served or the loved ones who prayed for their return.  American forces wrested control of a small island from a brutal Marxist dictator and heavily armed Cuban troops who threatened the lives of hundreds of American and other foreign medical students stranded on the island.  Compared to the toll of lives lost here at Antietam during those fall days of 1862, the losses were miniscule at Grenada in those autumn days of 1983. 
Wreath Laying at the Common Soldier Statue
But there were losses.  I was part of the assault command post, on one of the first aircraft from the 82nd Airborne to arrive.  My job at division headquarters was normally to arrange resupply of food, ammunition, and coordinate transportation to our soldiers.  But on our first night on the ground, a call came back to division headquarters.  There had been casualties. No, the wounded were being taken care of all right but there was no one to look after the dead.    The troops who normally handled that were not on the ground.  In a dark half built airport terminal on a warm humid tropical night punctuated by flashes of lightning and small arms fire, the colonel looked at me and said get down there.  Army rangers had just brought in three of their own who were killed during the day.  Nothing in my life ever prepared me for what I had to do next.  I had to go to each stretcher, unzip the body bags, find their military IDs, and identify these men.  I looked at these young faces, lives snuffed out as they were perhaps reaching their potential in life, All had parents, siblings, wives and even children who due to the fast pace of this operation out of the country, may not have even known that their loved one was here.   That was my case.  My parents tried for several days to reach me not knowing where I was.  As I stood over these men, I felt the looks of their buddies watching me, making sure I was treating their comrades with reverence and respect.  I remember thinking about their families back home as yet unknowing of the fate of this loved one.  After identification, I secured their personal effects, pictures, wallets, dog tags, and whatever was in the pockets.  Little things certainly that we would normally not give a second thought to, but precious fragments of a life that would certainly to be treasured by loved ones back home.  My last act was to arrange air transportation by an outgoing military aircraft to nearby Barbados the first leg on a sad, final trip home.  I worked through the night and hours later as the sun rose over the ocean, walked back alone to the concrete shell of an airport terminal that we used as our headquarters.  I dreaded the arrival of darkness for I now knew how the routine worked. Sure enough that night, the radio again crackled to life around midnight.  Again, the colonel sent me down.  Another walk down that long dark path to the makeshift morgue. Two Marines this time, pilot and co-pilot from a Cobra helicopter who had been shot down and crashed into the sea.  I repeated the identification and evacuation steps.  The same process.  The same thoughts.  The grim call again came the third night – fellow paratroopers from my own division this time. And then mercifully, the radio calls stopped coming.  But for as long as I was on that island, I feared the night.

The toll was small by the standards of Antietam’s cornfields, woodlots, hills and bridges, but the effect was the same in dozens of households around the nation.  Forever after an empty chair at the table.  Now memories only to recall that life.

I didn’t suffer so much as a scratch.  A week later I was home safe in North Carolina joyously telephoning my relieved parents in Buffalo New York to let them know I was safe.  I retrieved a pile of newspapers in my driveway.  In one of the papers were the names and pictures of the men killed in action. Men who I last saw on a remote island in the Caribbean Sea just a week ago.  Men I sent on their last, long journey home. Men around my age who if they survived, would now be around 50 years old. They might today be successful businessmen, teachers, career military men, farmers, or mechanics with families of their own.

But it is often sadly the fate of those veterans who do return, after having once again secured our freedoms and restored peace to our land, to be overlooked, forgotten, marginalized, and taken for granted by society. Sometimes Hollywood and media characterizations of combat veterans don’t always portray a positive or accurate image. The reality is that veterans simply seek to return to their families and to resume their lives. To use their experience, maturity, perspectives, work ethic, and skills to support their families, build futures and contribute to their communities.

Today when I look at Matthew Brady’s Civil War pictures titled the dead of Antietam, I recall that moment over 29 years ago when I looked upon the still forms and ashen faces of these men. This past week, I pulled out the old newspaper articles again.  I recalled those three nights long ago and the sights and smells and emotions returned.  I knew none of these men in life but I will always remember them in death.  A different generation certainly, a different place surely but nevertheless all united in death and by their service to America with the men who sleep here.
As a volunteer here at Antietam for the past five years, I have come to know this place well.  A battlefield where the ill winds of war reaped a terrible harvest. Today we consider that generation of the 1860s irreparably impacted by the bloodiest war in our history, and by the bloodiest day in that terrible war here at Antietam.  In this National Cemetery thousands of the men of the Union are buried, many unknown, and joining them are soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from later wars.  The last warrior laid to rest is Patrick Roy, lost on the USS Cole on another autumn day in they year 2000.
Edward Bragg a citizen-soldier commanded the Sixth Wisconsin Infantry at Antietam until he was seriously wounded.  In a letter written four days later to his wife Cornela, Bragg said "No one can see such sights and not be deeply affected for life." Another veteran, Robert Park from the Twelfth Alabama says "Memories of scores of army comrades and childhood's friend slain at Sharpsburg came before my mind and kept away sleep for a long while.  The scars of war run deep and remain in the memory forever.  Some veterans emerge relatively unscathed. For others the pain and stress are much harder to cope with.   I believe that we all carry the memories somewhere in our minds.  For some more close to the surface than for others.
Another soldier here at Antietam was Wilder Dwight of the 2nd Massachusetts.  Wilder penned a letter to his mother on the morning of September 17th, 1862 that he began as his unit was advancing across the fields just north of here. In firm strong handwriting he writes,  “On the field Dear Mother, It is a misty moisty morning. We are engaging the enemy and are drawn up in support of Hooker who is banging away most briskly.  I write in the saddle to send you my love and to say that I am well so far. “  … But then a bullet strikes him down.  In a weaker shakier hand now, he continues his letter  Dearest mother, I am wounded so as to be helpless. Good-bye if so it must be. I think I die in victory. God defend our country. I trust in God and love you all to the last.  Dearest love to father and my dear brothers.  Our troops have left the part of the field where I lay.  Mother, yours, Wilder.  And then later, perhaps struggling to remain conscious, he ends his letter in a barely legible scrawl with All is well with those that have faith. Wilder Dwight died two days later in Boonsboro.  Three of the brothers he sends greetings to in this last letter also served.  One brother, Charles Wilder was for a time a prisoner of war in Libby prison in Richmond.  In May of 1863 the family learned of the death of Wilder’s younger brother, 26-year-old Howard Dwight who perished at Port Hudson on the Mississippi.

On this Memorial Day of 2012 in the 150th anniversary year of the Battle of Antietam we behold this field of white stones around us each signifying the life of a soldier.  We recall the momentous events of 150 years ago that brought many of these men to Antietam. It is important to recall Wilder Dwight’s last words about faith.  It is about keeping faith with these men and their descendents men and women who are serving today, whether here in our own country, or on the high seas or in foreign lands around the world.  Keeping faith can be about shaking hands with a veteran and thanking him or her for their service.  But we all know that it can and should be much more than that. It is supporting them in as many other ways as we can that lets them know that we appreciate their service and that they are indeed remembered, appreciated, and valued for the remainder of their days. It is what they deserve.   And on this Memorial Day, it is what those right out there, who rest for eternity, expect of us as well.   God Bless our Veterans and God Bless America.

(Photographs by Rachel Rosebrock)

4 comments:

  1. Beautifully done Jim, thank you for serving, and sharing.

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  2. Thanks Tom, It is all about those who serve our nation. I was very humbled to make the address. Thanks for being there. Jim

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  3. Excellent, Jim... thanks for sharing. One can tell when it comes from the heart! We often give too much credit to those who lead, but it takes lots of dedicated followers willing to sacrifice for national success.
    Ron Dickey

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  4. Thanks Ron. I have had that in me for a long time and it is the first time I really had the opportunity to share some of those thoughts. All the best. Jim

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