By Brian O’Connor
The following are notes of remarks made by Brian O’Connor at Falls Church’s Veterans’ Day Ceremony Tuesday.
I am honored to be here and with Dr. Hai and our Vietnamese friends. I pray their desire for republican government and civil rights in Vietnam will come to pass. I pray this will be within their lifetimes.
All over our country, in cities and towns, speakers are polishing their rhetoric to put into words the meaning of Veterans Day. You are stuck with me, the lowest ranking soldier ever to keynote Vets’ Day! You may blame Harry Shovlin. He asked me because I am a fellow medic.
It is impossible to turn Harry down when he asks a favor. He is a licensed, practicing electrician.
This makes him too essential to my life.
It was my privilege to be a medic assigned to Walter Reed Army Hospital, in Washington, D.C. If you visited there before the Walter Reed was moved to Maryland, you would remember how beautiful it was, on about 113 acres. It was founded in 1909 and moved in 2011. I was not assigned there because I was a good medic. I was assigned there because I was bored with my reserve hospital job and I asked for something better to do.
I was assigned to the “Neuro Ward.” This ward cared for seriously injured servicemen, some wounded in Vietnam combat, many with head or spine injuries. Many had permanent injuries. They were inspiring. They were wonderful.
Veterans Day originates from Armistice Day ending World War I combat in 1918 at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. In 1971 Congress moved the holiday to a Monday. The Country did not go along. It was important to preserve the 11th of November and the heritage it represented. In 1978, it was restored as a Federal holiday on the 11th of November.
In contrast to Memorial Day, Veterans Day is a day to remember the living: those who are veterans, those still in uniform, their families and the families of those who have fallen. We honor the dead but this is a day to honor the living.
There is a need. How can we support our veterans?
First, we should recognize we have not, as a country, been called upon make real sacrifices unless we served or had someone close to us who served on active duty since 2001. About 2.5 million service members participated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. There has been no call-up, no draft. Many of those who served were deployed multiple times. We were not asked even to pay a tax to pay for these wars. Our politicians shrank from asking anyone out of uniform to sacrifice. They did not provide the resources to the Veterans Administration or to facilities like Walter Reed to meet the challenges facing our returning troops. We seemed to lose Congressional supervision and knowledge of these agencies and their military constituencies.
Remembering Walter Reed made me recall I did not see many visitors to these young men in the hospital.
We should do better now. Many Vietnam vets were met with hostility. Whatever our political views, whatever our positions on these wars or Bush, or Obama, there is no place for neutrality regarding those who served their country today. Our veterans deserve our respect and support without reservations.
What can we do? Everyone knows a veteran or a veteran’s family. Each of us can thank them for their service.
You should become informed about veterans’ needs and what our politicians are doing to answer.
You should write Congress. You might reach out to TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. You might contact The National Military Family Association and Blue Star Families.
If you have a business, you can hire a veteran. Take advantage of the tax credits available for doing so, such as the “Returning Heroes Tax Credit.”
You can find a veteran to visit, in or out of a hospital, or to write, or to email. Contact the VA.
You can contact Harry Shovlin and members of our local Legion 130. The American Legion has programs to assist veterans and their families.
You can Google.
You can act. You can do more than say: “Thanks for your service.”
It is important to realize when these men and women put on the uniform, they develop a devotion to their branch and to their comrades. This love of the Corps or the Unit flows into love of country. It is not a mere abstract idea; it is an emotion. This devotion should be honored. This love of the flag evokes what we want for our country’s institutions everywhere, in and out of the military: decency, competency, bravery, dedication to the common welfare, respect for the notion that all men are created equal. We are all in this together. The sacrifice of our veterans, and ours in whatever way we honor them, is worth it. This country, as Lincoln said, is special; whatever its shortcomings, it is still the “Last best hope of men on earth.”
Brian O’Connor is a former Army Reserves combat medic and former mayor of the City of Falls Church.