2014 Memorial Day Speech in Humboldt, South Dakota

Today we are here to remember those who have died in defense of our nation, that the rest of us might live in peace and freedom. Memorial Day, which began in 1868 as Decoration Day to honor Union soldiers killed in the Civil War, now includes all wars and military actions. Since 1971, when the date was changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May, we have had a three-day Memorial Day holiday weekend. I’m glad you took the time to be with us this morning.

Our defenders are still dying. We’ve lost over 6,800 American service members in Iraq and Afghanistan in the years since those wars began. I’d like to tell you about a few of them, as portrayed in books I’ve read recently.

Lt Mike Johnson, Staff Sergeant Kenefick, and Hospital Corpsman Third Class Layton were killed in Afghanistan, near a mountain village called Ganjigal, in 2009. They were part of a group of Marine Corps advisors working with Afghan troops when they were ambushed by Taliban forces. Their story is told by Corporal Dakota Meyer in his book, Into the Fire.

Meyer, a Marine Corps sniper, was not with his team at the time of the ambush. He repeatedly went into the fire to search for his teammates. By the time he reached them, they were dead. Meyer earned the Medal of Honor for his heroism.

Lone Survivor details the experiences of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. Four SEALS were sent on a reconnaissance mission, titled Operation Redwing, in Afghanistan in 2005. Petty Officer First Class Luttrell was the lone survivor. Petty Officer Second Class Axelson and Petty Officer Danny Dietz were both shot numerous times and kept firing until they died. Lt. Mike Murphy received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions as team leader.

These are the sort of individuals we honor today.

And there are many of them. My overall impression of the young servicemen and women I worked with and visited in my travels over the years is that they didn’t ask for big bucks or special recognition. They asked only for equipment that worked, tools to do the job, and the knowledge that their efforts mattered. They saw themselves as merely doing their duty. I was always impressed by the cheerfulness and dedication and ability, in spite of cramped and difficult working conditions and limited resources.

That dedication has persisted throughout the years. I’m the new president of the Battleship South Dakota Memorial in Sioux Falls, and I’ve been learning the history of USS South Dakota, BB-57, and the men who served on her during World War II. One I already knew about.

Calvin Graham, who enlisted in the Navy at age 12 and holds the record as the youngest veteran of the war, was assigned to USS South Dakota. When a 500-pound bomb hit the number one gun turret during the Battle of Santa Cruz in 1942, Calvin took shrapnel In his neck. When his true age was discovered, he spent his 13th birthday in the brig, charged with fraudulent underage enlistment. His medals, including his Purple Heart, were taken from him and he didn’t get them restored, or receive any disability benefits for his injuries, until years later. I first heard of him from the 1988 TV movie, Too Young the Hero, with Ricky Schroder in the title role. The movie so tore me up that I contacted Calvin, and we stayed in touch until his death. I recently learned that Calvin and his wife came to Sioux Falls one year for the reunion of the battleship sailors.

Most of those sailors are gone, but the words of some of them live on in the oral histories that can be found on the memorial’s website at usssouthdakota.com. The one I most enjoyed listening to was Sargent Shriver. He appears to be a knowledgeable person with a good sense of humor, and he sounds just like John F. Kennedy on the recording. I encourage you to go to the website and listen to some of the stories, or download the transcripts and read them. And, of course, I encourage you to visit the memorial itself.

During my years in the Navy, I had the opportunity to travel around the world. I’ve visited the island of Iwo Jima and stood on Mount Surabachi where U.S. Marines raised that famous flag. And many died. At Kanchanaburi, Thailand, I saw the bridge Allied prisoners of war were forced to build across the River Kwai during World War II. And many died. I’ve toured battlefields on Guam, Saipan, and Okinawa, as well as Gettysburg. In Washington, D.C., I attended groundbreaking and dedication ceremonies for the Women in Military Service to America Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the Korean War Memorial. I’ve visited the graves of John and Robert Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery and observed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Now I live ninety miles from the farm where I grew up. We didn’t plan to turn into a military family; it just happened that way. My grandfather sailed the seven seas for the German navy, before he immigrated to the United States just over a century ago and became a farmer. Three of his four sons–one would become my dad–were drafted and sent to the European theater during World War II. Mom and several of her brothers served in the Navy during that time. Mom and Dad met and married after the war was over, and they spent their lives farming near Clear Lake. We became a family of Army men and Navy women. One brother was a second lieutenant in the South Dakota National Guard, and my little brother is still in the Guard. He completed four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. My sister retired from the U.S. Navy after 20 years and I retired after 32. In fact, she is participating in the American Legion ceremony in Clear Lake this morning.

My childhood dream was to be a modern-day Laura Ingalls Wilder, teaching in one-room country schools. Instead, I ended up being a Navy captain and published author. As I evolved into a leader, I realized my role was to improve the Navy and the lives of my sailors.

Now that I’m retired from the Navy and living in Sioux Falls, I participate in the funeral honor guard for the VFW and American Legion. It seems the least I can do, to give one last honor to military veterans and their families to recognize their service and dedication. I know from personal experience how much this ceremony means. My sister and I have folded and presented flags at the burials of our father, our mother, and our brother Kenny.

I wish to thank all of you here today who served our nation in peace and war, all family members for your support and sacrifice, and everyone who–in some fashion–stands guard for freedom. Whether you come from Humboldt or Clear Lake or any other small town, your role is as significant as any other in this nation.

Those of you who lost family members in combat might relate to the words President Lincoln wrote one grieving mother in 1864. He talked about “the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.”

I will close with a comment from a modern Gold Star mother. Her daughter lies in Arlington National Cemetery, and she told the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Grief is the price of love.”

Memorial Day Speech
by CAPT Diane Diekman, USN (ret)
at Humboldt, South Dakota
May 26, 2014

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.