Thank you, Master Sergeant Topham.
Greetings to all the Veterans who are present, to our Public Safety personnel including our Police Officers and Firefighters, our Community Leaders, and the Community Members who are here today.
It is a privilege of my office, as your State Representative, that I am invited to speak at this solemn ceremony. I feel a great responsibility to represent our community and our Commonwealth. It is deeply humbling for me as an elected leader, a former VA nurse and a mother to search for the words that add meaning to our presence on this day.
As we gather in our hometown, may I first speak of the American service men and women who are stationed all over the world. In fact, the United States has over 800 military bases in more than 70 countries. According to the Department of Defense, 1.3 million Americans serve in active duty and one million more serve in the Reserves.
Make no mistake…they are in harm’s way. Dying in training and dying in the field. We pray for their safety and we honor their service. Some have returned and are wounded in ways that are devastating, debilitating and lifelong. Some have injuries that are deep, grave and invisible; and die by suicide. Some are lost to us and just never return. We pray for all of them.
On Memorial Day we honor those who have died in military service. Veterans stand at attention with downcast eyes hiding the horror of their comrades’ deaths. Families and loved ones stand with an upward gaze searching for a vision of what might have been. Good citizens come to see and be seen as guardians of our responsibility to those that have served – and many Americans, searching for the satisfaction of a summer barbecue or a big sale, never look at all.
1.1 million Americans have died in military service since the Revolutionary War; 32,268 were from Massachusetts. Picture Fenway Park, which seats 37,731 people. Let your eyes wander from the bleachers to the box seats; let your eyes scan east and west. Picture all of the faces; the arms that lift doing the wave; the bodies that rise and stretch in the seventh inning; the voices that ring with exasperation at the fumbled ball and with celebration at the game winning hit. Now picture each one lost to Massachusetts forever – dying in military service.
From the Revolutionary War through World War II, war was a personal experience for most Americans – someone we knew in our family, our church, our community was in harm’s way. 12 percent of Americans served in World War II – more than 1 in 10. Everybody knew somebody. Death of servicemen and women ravaged families and reverberated in communities. Today, fewer than one percent of Americans are in active service. The military is concentrated with volunteers from certain geographic areas and racial and socio- economic strata. Communities like Needham are largely insulated from losses. We are in grave danger of being disconnected, not only from the cost of war, but of our great debt to those who served.
So today, we gather and we are conscious of the losses. Let us reflect on the loss of the individuals. The service person who was once the anticipated baby, the beloved toddler, the stunning athlete, the inspiring scholar, the first love, the best hope for aging parents.
How do we comprehend this loss? Let us reflect on what these losses mean to us as a community and Commonwealth and country. The talents and goals never achieved. Marriages that were torn asunder, or like my friend of the 60’s, beautiful, kind and smart, who never married and always believed that her love died in Vietnam long before they ever could have met and so it never happened. The children without a parent… the babies never born. The discoveries never made, the knowledge never acquired. The dreams never realized.
And when we feel deeply these losses, how do we repay this debt? Not with platitudes about “our way of life” but with a sense of purpose for the true meaning of freedom.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt talked of four freedoms: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear.
In these unsettled times, in a complicated and divisive country, can we ensure that all voices are heard – that there is freedom of speech? That we hear the voices that echo our thoughts, that we listen to the voices that disrupt and unsettle our thoughts? Can we listen when we don’t agree? Can we learn when we already thought we knew?
Can we honor that for some there is a God and for some there is doubt and that everyone on that continuum has the freedom to worship, or not worship, as they choose.
In a land as prosperous as ours, can we ensure freedom from want? Can we act so that no child goes to bed hungry, no sick person is turned away from care, and no veteran sleeps on the street?
Finally, it is said that the only emotion stronger than fear is hope. Can we live with hope, speak of hope and work for a world envisioned by hope and free of fear?
We must strive to ensure the essential freedoms of what it means to be an American.
1.1 million Americans in our brief history have died in military service. Let us feel the grave weight of our responsibility to value those lives. Let us be determined that no American life, no matter how distant from our own family and community, is squandered in our name for oil, or posturing allies, or ego. Let us not fall for a platitude like “freedom for our way of life”. Let us stand and be committed today and every day to the freedoms that matter. The freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear. Let us be dedicated to see in every flag that flies, every flag beside a gravestone – our own responsibility.
Let us ensure that we are not the country that 1.1 million service people died for… but the kind of communities and country …they wanted to live for.