Memorial Day Speech – 2017

Memorial Day Speech by CAPT Diane Diekman, USN (ret)
May 29, 2017
American Legion Post 13, Willow Lake, South Dakota

If South Dakota hadn’t passed a law in the mid-1960s to allow only 12-year school districts, I wouldn’t be standing here today. I’d be a retired country schoolteacher instead of a retired U.S. Navy captain.

That law dashed my childhood dream of teaching in the same sort of one-room country school I grew up in near Clear Lake. Teaching in town schools didn’t interest me. So I enlisted in the Navy after college graduation. The women’s officer program had no openings that summer. At Recruit Training Command (Women) in Orlando, we were taught that ladies always wear lipstick and it wasn’t ladylike to run. I no longer remember all nine types of naval correspondence, but I still fold my towels in equal thirds.

By the time I went to Officer Candidate School three years later, women had been integrated into the regular Navy and we trained with the men. I learned seamanship and celestial navigation, and I struggled to pass the physical fitness test of running an entire mile.

When Mary Ellen Reints invited me to speak today, she asked me to include a few things about my career. I was one of the first women to be accepted into the field of aircraft maintenance. Many times over the years, I’ve been asked, “Are you a nurse or an admin officer?” as if those were the only jobs female officers could fill. “Neither,” I always replied. “I’m a maintenance officer.”

As more women entered male-only fields, sea duty became an issue. To be competitive for promotion in the Navy, you have to have sea duty. But women weren’t allowed on ships. To compensate, Navy leadership counted overseas assignments as sea duty for women.

Men complained that women took all the good shore duty billets. It didn’t matter to them that we wanted to go to sea.

For most of my career, I felt like I was standing in the doorway and not allowed to enter the room. I had the same training, dedication, and on-shore experiences as the men. But I couldn’t be assigned to aircraft carriers or tailhook squadrons, and that’s what naval aviation is all about.

Some of the rules made sense at the time, and some didn’t. Several of the earliest female pilots attended OCS with me. They then went to Pensacola for primary flight training. There they joined men who had attended aviation OCS. The women, coming from ship-driver OCS, were already behind their counterparts.

My first maintenance officer assignment was at a training squadron in Kingsville, Texas. It was a big deal when students completed their advanced training and received their pilot’s wings. But women, for some unknown reason, were given their wings at the end of primary training. So they came to Texas as students but already wearing wings. That didn’t endear them to the men, even those who didn’t object to female jet pilots.

When I left there, I went to a genuine sea duty billet in a combat patrol squadron. With three years of experience under my belt, I expected to be assigned to a senior lieutenant billet. But my new boss gave me the same job I’d started with in my first squadron. He answered my objections by saying I’d never been in a patrol squadron and I needed to become familiar with it. No male lieutenant would ever have been placed in the corner until he got used to being there. I realized they had to get used to me. They had never seen a female maintenance officer.

By the time aircraft carriers finally opened to women in the early 1990s, I was too senior in rank for those assignments. But I have been underway on several ships. Soon after my promotion to captain in 1997, I rode the USS Independence from Singapore to Japan. I was the only woman on a ship filled with 3,700 men.

Five of us were scheduled to fly off the ship to Atsugi Naval Air Station, and we were waiting in a tiny entranceway on the flight deck’s island. An officer pushed open the heavy metal hatch and motioned me out into the noise of the flight deck. I stepped outside–and froze.

Two rows of sailors formed a corridor between me and the waiting aircraft. I recognized the setting for piping someone ashore. But why on the flight deck? And why me? The ship’s prospective commanding officer was inside. Did someone make a mistake by sending me out first? I wanted to duck back inside.

Four bells sounded and the loudspeaker blared, “Captain, United States Navy, departing.” The sideboys in front of me snapped to a salute.

I felt as if every man on the flight deck was watching to see if I knew what to do. So I saluted smartly, marched through the sideboy corridor, and boarded the plane. Once inside, I belatedly remembered—I’m a captain! And captains get piped ashore. But I didn’t know this ceremony took place when flying off an aircraft carrier.

Throughout my 32 years in the Navy, there was no shortage of unexpected events that required quick thinking. Many times I had to act poised and confident while feeling the opposite. You’ve probably all experienced that yourselves.

I’m grateful for a career that offered exciting challenges and provided so many blessings. I’m also grateful to be a citizen of the United States of America. On this Memorial Day, we remember our comrades who died to preserve our nation.

There is a “Cornerstone of Peace” on the island of Okinawa in Japan–a memorial to those who died in its bloody battles during World War II. The focal point is a Flame of Peace in the center of a large water fountain. The flame represents Okinawa. Waters of peace flow from it to fan-shaped black granite walls that represent the entire world. The names of casualties of the Battle of Okinawa are inscribed on the black granite. Regardless of nationality, or military or civilian status, they paid the price for this peace. In the foreign section, U.S. losses are listed by service. I was surprised to see the Navy listed first, with more casualties than either the Army or Marine Corps. That was due to the high number of ships sunk by kamikaze attacks.

Freedom is not free. On the island of Iwo Jima, I stood on Mount Surabachi at the spot where Marines raised that famous flag. I looked out over the tiny island, and later walked on the black sand of the landing beaches.

At Kanchanaburi, Thailand, I rode in a train across the bridge over the River Kwai. Allied prisoners of war were forced to build the bridge during World War II. My tour group visited the Chungkai War Cemetery, where 1,700 of those Allied POWs are buried. Flowering bushes grew between evenly-spaced grave markers on a neatly manicured field. The markers listed names, units, ranks and dates.

I’ve walked across battlefields on Guam, Saipan, and Okinawa, along with Civil War sites here in the USA. In Washington, D.C., we are reminded of sacrifices by visiting the Vietnam Wall, World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, and others such as the Women in Military Service to America Memorial.

Visiting the amphibious ship USS Belleau Wood in 1998, I toured an extensive medical facility with four operating rooms. When I asked about hospital beds, my host said the Marine Corps battalion’s berthing spaces would become a hospital ward after the battalion went ashore. The ship was designed to deliver its Marines and take back only the casualties.

I also entered the Belleau Wood’s engineering spaces. The deafening roar of machinery and the use of hearing protectors required us to shout to be heard. The heat from the steam plant made the place unbearable. I couldn’t imagine working in those noisy, sweltering, claustrophobic spaces, hour after hour and month after month. Not to mention bombs and torpedoes during wartime.

The many young servicemen and women I met over the years 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 their cheerfulness, dedication, and ability, in spite of cramped and difficult working conditions and limited resources.

We still have dedicated young people working diligently and risking their lives for us every day. One of my most heart wrenching experiences was visiting wounded combat veterans at Walter Reed Hospital several years ago.

One couple sat beside the bed of their son, who just been flown in that weekend. They were still absorbing the shock of his injuries. A wife escorted her brain-injured husband down the hall. An Army captain, who’d lost his leg six months earlier, propelled his wheelchair from room to room and tried to cheer up the residents.

My visit made me wish every person who has a voice in sending people to war could be required to talk to these injured soldiers and their families. Let’s not forget them. We must take care of those who are sacrificing so much.

Mary Ellen asked for my thoughts on what we in our communities can do to help. Raising your children to be respectful of others is critical. Set a good example by how you treat fellow human beings. Hatred and selfishness seem to have become acceptable behavior in the past several years. We have to turn that around. Let’s look for win-win situations. Let’s try to not make losers out of those who disagree with us.

As we honor the men and women who died in defense of this nation, as we show our pride in them, let’s make them proud of us–by striving to keep the United States of America a place where all people can enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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