Thank you so much for the invitation to speak today. As many times as I have done so around this country, I still admit to a slight case of butterflies as I hear my name introduced which is really no problem as long as you get them all to fly in close formation. I am not here today as some war hero, or famous person. All I did was leave my plane in the jungles of Viet Nam one day, and was lucky enough to survive the experience. You know, they say a good landing is one you can walk away from, and a great landing is when you can use the airplane again. Well, I did neither, and I address you today, as simply a fellow American citizen. Since the events of September 11th, I hear a lot of people saying, "God Bless America." I believe God has blessed America, in many ways, from the very inception of this nation over 200 years ago. What were the odds that at the very time the colonies decided to break from the British Empire, that there would be a group of men in the new world, with the intellect and vision to shape that process? God truly blessed us with the collective perceptive genius of men like Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Franklin, and others, who all came together, in those colonies, at the exact moment in history when a nation was born. And who would have bet that a group of upstart colonists, with little resources, and even less of an army, could take on, and defeat, the mighty British Empire? But they did, and a country was born. And when the fabric of this country was torn with a great Civil War, God Blessed this nation with the wisdom and leadership of a President Lincoln, who made the difficult choices, so that this nation would survive as one. And when the United States was thrust into World War II with a vicious attack on our forces at Pearl Harbor, God Blessed this nation with a populace that rose to the challenge, both on the home front and the battlefield. No finer chapter in human history can be told of sacrifice, courage, and resolve, than the countless stories of American soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines during four years of the greatest global conflict the world has ever known. Some of you here today were a part of that generation that we now appropriately refer to as "the greatest generation." If World War II left us scarred with its inhumanity, then it also left us the legacy of hope by those who made so many sacrifices, and fought to victory, to insure the flame of freedom still burns. Yes, I believe God has blessed this nation in many ways, although sometimes we forget just how fortunate we really are and now, after a horrific attack on our homeland, we find ourselves embattled in a war once again. And yet, there are many who seem unsure of the response we should take. Today, we honor so many who have given their lives, in defense of this country row upon row of tombstones, silent vigils to their ultimate sacrifice. If the dead could speak today, they would tell you that all it takes for evil to succeed in the world if for good people to stand by and do nothing. They would emphatically declare to you that you negotiate with the enemy with your knee in his chest and your knife at his throat. And they would remind you that those who forget their history, are condemned to repeat it.
We are a nation guilty of forgetting these lessons. Had we learned them better, our cemeteries would be less full.
We fought a Cold War for so long, that perhaps we became weary and complacent, and when we won that war, we became soft. We indulged ourselves in the notion that the world was all safe, and we thought a booming economy was ample substitute for a strong military. Did we really think electing self-serving politicians would make us stronger as a nation? Somehow we came to accept the notion that freedom was free. It never has been. The price of freedom has always been eternal vigilance. We need to understand that there are those in the world who would destroy us because our way of life threatens their quest for world domination.
This place we love, that we call America, is not just a place, it is an idea. An idea manifested in its people, a very diverse people. I heard a college student on TV the other day say that if a mandatory draft was imposed, he would head for Canada, as he had already mapped out his career, and serving in the military was just not in his plans. Not in his plans I wonder if the young boys on the beaches at Normandy had other plans, as their dead bodies washed ashore in a sea of red. I am sure the young men who found themselves in the jungles of Viet Nam, watching their buddies die in an unnamed rice patty fighting an unseen enemy had other plans. I guess those men and women surprised at Pearl Harbor one morning had all their plans rearranged in ways they could never have imagined. The people at the World Trade Center have no more plans.
But in this diversity, also comes our strength as a nation. All may speak, and the will of the majority will be heard. Though we may disagree, we are all Americans and live under the same flag. That beautiful flag that has become such a symbol of freedom to the world. For those who have fought on foreign soil, they understand better than most the importance of this flag, and the strength derived from its presence.
This flag was carried in the Revolutionary War, though it had many less stars, by men too weary, and under equipped to expect victory, but persevere they did, and a nation was born, with a new flag.
This flag – battle-worn and tattered – flew high on the mast of John Paul Jones' ship, when he showed the enemy what true resolve was.
And brave men raised this flag on a god-forsaken island in the Pacific called Iwo Jima, and became part of the most memorable photograph of the 20th Century. That picture of our flag, raised high by our Marines during the bloodiest battle in their history, did more for the morale of the American people than any other picture or film of the entire war. This weekend marks the Marine Corps birthday, and to all those Marines in the crowd, I salute you, and thank you for your service. For those of you who have not toured the Marine Memorial in Washington, DC, I highly recommend it. Inscribed on the marble sides of the monument you will find the words, When uncommon valor was a common virtue. You will also see the stars and stripes waving proudly from its top.
This flag of ours was even carried to the moon, by men with a vision, and the courage to see it through. And this same flag has been raised amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center, as a reminder to those who would think they could destroy this nation so easily. I can tell you personally, that just seeing that red, white, and blue banner can mean so much. As I lay in a hospital bed, unable to move, I can clearly remember seeing out the window, the very large Garrison flag, flown on Sundays, waving majestically from its pole. Just seeing it gave me an inner strength and motivation that I know, in some way, helped me to be where I am today. I can also remember years later, while fighting terrorism in Libya, my backseater and I were piercing the sky above Muammar Qaddafi in our SR-71, dodging the missiles he sent after us. As we turned toward the Mediterranean, I clearly recall the reflection of the American Flag patch on the arm of my space suit, visible in the rear view mirror. Now, don't ask me why we had rear view mirrors on the world's fastest jet, I can assure you, no one was gaining on us. But just seeing it gave me a sense of security, and reminded me that we were a part of something much bigger, and better than the land we had just imprinted with our sonic boom.
I have always found it interesting that those arguing for the right to burn the flag, are usually the least willing to defend those rights, and are made free and kept so by better men than themselves. When I see the rows of American flags today at cemeteries across this nation, I know those we are honoring, if they could speak, would tell you thanks and how proud they are to have that flag flying by their name.
This will not be an easy struggle for us, this new type of terrorist war. I pray for our leaders. Some have questioned if President Bush is up to this great challenge. I recall the quote of Admiral "Bull" Halsey in World War II when he said, "There are no great men, only great circumstances, and how they deal with those circumstances will determine the outcome of history." I believe God has blessed this nation with good men, strong men, in leadership positions today. Men not afraid to make the difficult decisions. Men who understand that nothing in our history tells us that preserving and protecting this free nation would ever be easy.
America is only as strong as its people. We are the caretakers of all that our forefathers created, and fought for. It is now our turn to show resolve and preserve those precious freedoms that we have for too long taken for granted. The enemy that knows it cannot defeat us on the battlefield, will try to defeat us through fear and dissension amongst ourselves. Wars are not won only on the field of battle, but are won by the will of the people.
I take heart that this nation will be strong. Even while the first shot was still being fired, brave Americans aboard Flight 93 took a stand and fought back. They were the first heroes of this war. In a terrorist war of this type, we are all soldiers. We must remain resolved, focused, and committed to defeating this most heinous of enemies. While our soldiers fight the enemy on his home front, we must endure on our own home front, the tiresome wailings of liberal newscasters who seem to think that our military is the enemy, as they over-scrutinize every move they make, smugly reporting every civilian casualty as if it represents a failing of some sort. We must also endure a media that is capable of only criticizing our own government. Personally I believe we are winning the war on both fronts. And we must win, as this is truly a nation that must be preserved. We represent the freedom that so many people on this earth seek. It is why everyone wants to come to this country. But so few can really understand this nation. We are a two-edged sword, united but full of disagreement. We exercise capitalistic greed frequently, yet have been the most gracious humanitarian nation on earth. We are the high-tech of Silicon Valley and the heartland of the Midwest. An impatient people, yet tremendously resilient in difficult times. I can remember, after the Cold War was over, speaking with a former Soviet MiG pilot. He marveled over how our country could produce a plane such as the SR-71. He said the image he had of our country was one of decadence, Hollywood, and discarded products. He could not understand how we could have built a plane with such integrity that would last so long and remain the world's record holder in speed and altitude for all these years. I told him that indeed, we were a nation of excesses, and even ignorance at times, but that when men are free, all things are possible.
With all our faults, warts and all, we are still the greatest nation on earth. From the Declaration of Independence and the Monroe Doctrine, to Disneyland and Donald Duck·..we are the USS Missouri pounding enemy shores, flying the stars and stripes, and Mickey Mantle in pinstripes, pounding American League pitching from John Phillip Sousa to Elvis Presley we are Mark Twain, and Microsoft from Charles Lindbergh and Paris, to Charley Brown and Peanuts we are a nation that went from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base, in less than 70 years. Who can truly understand this greatness that is America, unless they have lived it? And who would dare to try and destroy us?
As we pause today to remember those heroes of our past, it should give us strength as we recall their commitment and resolve. Let us also remember today, those veterans who are still alive, and give them our thanks before they too pass from our ranks. And all those men and women serving on active duty today, far from home, performing their duty with little thanks or recognition. Before you leave today, take time to walk around the grounds and view the planes on display, and appreciate what they meant in our nation's history, and think about the crews who flew them and helped to win victories in WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, and played integral parts in the winning of the Cold War. Each one has a story.
The preservation of this nation is in our hands – there will be no points for second place. Wave your flag proudly today, salute it, honor it. Long may it wave. Thank you.
Major Brian Shul, USAF, Retired
11 Nov 2001
March AFB Air Museum
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