Memorial Day speech

Memorial Day speech in Clear Lake, South Dakota — 31 May 1999

WWII veterans John & Mildred Diekman, with daughters Diane & Lorraine

Memorial Day officially originated with General Order Number Eleven, issued in 1868 by the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. The order designated May 30 as a day to decorate the graves of comrades who died defending their country during “the late rebellion.” General Logan desired an annual observance and he hoped the press would advertise his order. Decoration Day eventually became Memorial Day, a national holiday to remember all who have died in our nation’s service.

The place that most evokes that recognition in me is Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. It truly feels like hallowed ground. From Civil War casualties to an Apache pilot killed in Kosovo several weeks ago, it is the final resting place for 265,000 of those we honor here today.

The land and the mansion now known as Arlington House were owned by General Robert E. Lee, until the Union Army confiscated his estate in 1864 to use as a burial ground for Union soldiers.

Today the cemetery covers 612 acres. Its three biggest tourist attractions are the Tomb of the Unknowns, Arlington House and the Kennedy graves. Visitors can ride Tourmobiles to these three sites or walk along the streets throughout the cemetery.

Arlington House sits on a hill above President Kennedy’s gravesite and looks across the Potomac River and Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial. The hillside itself contains no graves, except for one around the corner from the Presidential monument. A simple white cross and stone tablet at the foot of the hill identify the grave of Robert Kennedy.

As more World War II veterans die, the burial pace has increased to 23 funerals a day. This is Arlington’s busiest period since the Vietnam War, which peaked at 28 funerals in 1967.

If the cemetery continues filling at the current rate, it will run out of room by 2025. There is much discussion about restricting eligibility and about finding land for expansion.

This issue affects me. I want a spot at Arlington, but I don’t plan to die before 2025 to get one.

Two weeks ago I visited the Kennedy graves and then walked down Eisenhower Avenue to the burial sites of Admiral Mike Boorda and a captain friend who died while I was in Japan. Rows of white markers covered the green lawns around me, and the Pentagon sat in the distance.

I recalled taking Mom and Dad there three years ago, just after Admiral Boorda–the Chief of Naval Operations–committed suicide. We had stopped to rest, when a car pulled up and the driver offered us a ride. He said he would take us anywhere in the cemetery if we gave him directions.

I told him we were going to Admiral Boorda’s grave and he said he knew where it was. He drove down the street and parked his car. I was surprised that he got out with us instead of driving on to his destination. He pointed us to a grave near the curb and then walked across the street and sat on the grass.

Dad and Mom and I took photographs and then started back up the street. The man waved as we left. A few blocks later, he stopped his car beside us and again offered a ride.

We accepted and climbed in the car. People aren’t normally allowed to drive personal cars in the cemetery, so I asked, “Do you have family buried here?”

He replied, “He’s my dad. I just come here to check on him.”

As that soaked in, I exclaimed, “Mike Boorda is your dad?”


That certainly was a memorable experience. On my recent visit, though, no one offered a ride. I absorbed the solemn atmosphere as I walked down the street.

An Army honor guard had just completed one funeral and a Marine Corps honor guard was preparing to carry another casket to a gravesite. Mourners stood around the open grave.

A Navy band marched down the street playing Onward, Christian Soldiers. In the distance I heard a 21-gun salute and the mournful sound of Taps.

Later I drove across Memorial Bridge to more reminders of sacrifice. On the right of the Lincoln Memorial sits the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Nineteen poncho-clad infantry troops, seven feet tall and made of stainless steel, trudge wearily across a triangular field of juniper shrubs. A black marble wall contains etched faces to represent all those who supported the infantry troops in Korea.

To the left of the Lincoln Memorial is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with its 58,000 names carved into black marble.

A World War II memorial is in the planning stages, with groundbreaking scheduled for Veterans Day 2000.

A concept reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the “Cornerstone of Peace” on the island of Okinawa in Japan.

The focal point of this memorial is a Flame of Peace in the center of a large water fountain. The flame represents Okinawa, with the waters of peace flowing from it to the entire world, which is represented by fan-shaped black granite walls.

The names of casualties of the Battle of Okinawa, regardless of nationality or military or civilian status, are inscribed on the black granite to identify those who paid the price for this peace. In the foreign section, U.S. losses are listed by service, with the Navy listed first, due to its high number of fatalities from kamikaze attacks.

This past February I visited the island of Iwo Jima, and stood on Mount Surabachi at the spot where Marines raised that famous flag 54 years ago. I looked out over the tiny island, and later walked on the black sand of the landing beaches. No, I could not visualize a battlefield there.

At Kanchanaburi, Thailand, I saw the bridge that Allied prisoners of war were forced to build across the River Kwai during World War II. My tour group visited the Chungkai War Cemetery, where over 1700 of those Allied POWs are buried. Evenly spaced grave markers alternated with flowering bushes on a neatly manicured field. The markers listed names, units, ranks and dates.

These are just examples of the many places throughout the world that make it so obvious “freedom is not free.”

And who were these individuals whose remains now lie beneath neat rows of stone markers, or whose names are carved on granite walls?

I see them reincarnated whenever I visit today’s Sailors and Marines on Navy ships.

On the amphibious ship USS Belleau Wood, 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 is designed to deliver its Marines and take them back only as casualties.

I also toured the Belleau Wood’s engineering spaces. The deafening roar of machinery and the use of hearing protectors required us to shout in an attempt 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. Added to that is the expectation of bomb damage during wartime. These Sailors risk burns, explosions, suffocation, scalding or drowning.

On the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, I talked to Sailors working in hot boring storerooms and laundries. I admire the young supply officers who keep themselves and their Sailors motivated.

Then, of course, I must mention the Sailors in my business–the ones who spend their time on a dangerous flight deck or a dark flight line in bad weather.

Wherever I go, I’m impressed by the cheerfulness and dedication and ability, in spite of cramped and difficult working conditions and limited resources.

It isn’t just the Naval service. An Air Force pilot told me he’s amazed that his maintenance technicians stay motivated, and he wonders how they do it. They work and work, with no noticeable rewards. He added, “They don’t even get to fly.”

These young servicemen and women don’t ask for big bucks or special recognition. They ask only for equipment that works, tools to do the job, and the knowledge that their efforts matter. They see themselves as merely doing their duty.

On this Memorial Day, let’s not just remember those who have died. Let’s think about those still alive.

Recently, a long-time editor on the Washington Post staff died. For a week the Post printed letters and articles about how wonderful she had been, how much she would be missed, how she had been considered a mentor. One commentary filled half a page of newsprint.

I wondered how many of these people had shown their appreciation while she was alive. Their words were no good to her now.

Such situations happen frequently. Whenever I see a newspaper column or letter-to-the-editor praising an individual, I assume the person has just died. And that’s usually the case.

My challenge to you today is to think of one person you’d like to thank or somehow acknowledge–someone you’re planning to talk to someday. Make that someday now, before it’s too late.

One person I wish I could thank is my high school English teacher, Lillian Schiefelbein. When people say I’m good at grammar because I’m an English major, I tell them I didn’t learn grammar in college. I learned it from Miss Schiefelbein.

But I never told her that, and now it’s too late.

If you wonder whether someone would care about hearing from you, think how you would feel to get such a note or telephone call.

Several months ago I received an e-mail from a brand new Navy ensign. He introduced himself by saying he worked for me at Naval Air Station Jacksonville as a petty officer. He thanked me for giving him a particular job and for trusting in his ability. He said that job had provided the experience and motivation to make him a commissioned officer.

He is now in my career field–aircraft maintenance–and he hopes he will be as good a leader as I have been.

Now, do you think that note made my day? Well, I’m sure you can do the same for someone else.

So today, as we remember the sacrifices of those who died in service to our country, let’s also remember those who still serve.

And let’s thank those individuals, both military and civilian, who have been important to us and would like to hear our good words while they are still alive to do so.

One Response to “Memorial Day speech”

  1. Gary Presley Says:

    Well, in the spirit of your great speech, I will say “Thank you, Captain Diekman, for your service to our nation.”

    I remember a lot of those cemeteries around the world, most especially the ones in France with the long, long rows of crosses highlighted here and there by a Star of David.

    My folks are buried in the National Cemetery here in Springfield, one that was originally two — one for the Union veterans of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (the bloodiest Civil War battle west of the Mississippi) and one for the Confederates. The two cemeteries are now one, although the stone wall between the two originals remains. My parents are buried next to a lot plot of graves of Confederate unknown. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place.

    Thanks again for your service. I am proud to be your friend.

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