Speech at the Liberty Luncheon sponsored by For the Good of Illinois.
Thank you so very much Adam and Jennifer for inviting me into your organization and giving me the privilege to speak about Veterans on this day when our nation pauses to remember those who served in the Armed Forces. Would all those who have served please stand? The best way I can honor my fellow Veterans and true heroes is to share their stories so that we are always reminded and never forget their sacrifice. Today I will share with you the service of three soldiers who gave themselves over to the mission assigned with courage and perserverance.
The first is my Grandfather, Benard (Barney) Remmes. And today I wear his military jacket from WWI, the same jacket he wore sneaking across no-man’s land during 1918 just before the war ended and at a time where both sides were stalled in trenches peering out behind obstacles, minefields, and barbed wire because no one could get an advantage. My grandfather spoke and understood German. His mission as an infantry soldier was to sneak over to the enemy side and listen to the chatter to gain any intelligence, and as a sniper, to take out any enemy if possible. He was shot at, endured mustard gas attacks and lived in conditions probably no one in this room would endure for even one day. He wrote in a postcard to his sister on Nov 17, 1918 just 6 days after the Armistice and I quote, “I went up to the front the other day and it was sure a sight. I saw a German captain lying in a trench only half buried also a couple more German soldiers lying half buried on top of a trench it sure was an awful sight. I went through villages that were completely shot to pieces nothing left but ruins. You don’t know what war is until you have gone over the battle fields. You people in the States don’t know how well off you are.” My Grandfather was 29 years old then.
The second soldier’s story that I want to share with you is that of LT Lyle Bouck. His platoon of 18 men became the most decorated platoon of the US Army. They faced the main thrust of the entire German assault in HItler’s last offensive operation in the West in what most of know as the Battle of the Bulge. Their story is told in the book “The Longest WInter” by Alex Kershaw. Vastly outnumbered, the platoon repulsed three German assaults in a fierce day-long battle to defend a strategically vital hill. Only when Bouck’s men had run out of ammunition did they surrender. Their heroism in not running out of harm’s way and retreating from the enemy slowed Hitler’s advance long enough to allow American commanders to set up barriers, destroy key bridges and consolidate forces eventually leading to complete failure of Operation Wacht Am Rhein and the eventual demoralization of Hitler’s army. Only obedience to a higher authority won the day for us. For you see Lt Bouck had asked to retreat and was told to hold at all costs. His obedience truly won the day. His platoon’s suffering had just started though. They spent the rest of the time until April 1945 in a POW concentration camp and suffered immensely. In the book he tells how they were so thirsty while being transported in rail cars, crowded together so that all must stand and no one could move, that they would like the sweat off each others back. All 19 miracuously survived. Lt. Bouck’s son lives in Wheaton and is a personal friend. Lt. Bouck is still alive in St. Louis and will turn 88 on December 17. You see he was captured just before the cuckoo clock struck mid-night and he turned 21.
The last story that needs to be told is that of SSG Robbie Miller. One year ago you may remember he was awarded post-humously the Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanastan. HIs medal of honor citation reads as follows:
Robert J. Miller distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of heroism while serving as the Weapons Sergeant in Special Forces during combat operations against an armed enemy in Konar Province, Afghanistan on January 25, 2008. While conducting a combat reconnaissance patrol Staff Sergeant Miller and his small element of U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers engaged a force of 15 to 20 insurgents occupying prepared fighting positions. Staff Sergeant Miller initiated the assault by engaging the enemy positions with his vehicle’s automatic grenade launcher while simultaneously providing detailed descriptions of the enemy positions to his command, enabling effective, accurate close air support. Following the engagement, Staff Sergeant Miller led a small squad forward to conduct a battle damage assessment. As the group neared the small, steep, narrow valley that the enemy had inhabited, a large, well-coordinated insurgent force initiated a near ambush, assaulting from elevated positions with ample cover. Exposed and with little available cover, the patrol was totally vulnerable to enemy rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapon fire. As point man, Staff Sergeant Miller was at the front of the patrol, cut off from supporting elements, and less than 20 meters from enemy forces. Nonetheless, with total disregard for his own safety, he called for his men to quickly move back to covered positions as he charged the enemy over exposed ground and under overwhelming enemy fire in order to provide protective fire for his team. While maneuvering to engage the enemy, Staff Sergeant Miller was shot in his upper torso. Ignoring the wound, he continued to push the fight, moving to draw fire from over one hundred enemy fighters upon himself. He then again charged forward through an open area in order to allow his teammates to safely reach cover. After killing at least 10 insurgents, wounding dozens more, and repeatedly exposing himself to withering enemy fire while moving from position to position, Staff Sergeant Miller was mortally wounded by enemy fire. His extraordinary valor ultimately saved the lives of seven members of his own team and 15 Afghanistan National Army soldiers. Robbie was only 24 years old when he gave his life.
I knew Robbie as a high schooler and recall him asking about my service when he was planning on enlisting. Now the best I can do is not let anyone forget his service in defense of our nation. Just today I was at St. Michael School in Wheaton where Robbie graduated from grade school. I had just given a Veteran’s day presentation to my fifth grade son’s class and as I was leaving the school secretary showed me the Medal of Honor Medallion Robbie’s mother had dropped off that morning for the school’s trophy case. A trophy indeed!
I came today to get one point across to you in the audience – Military service is unique and special and those that have served understand dedication, obedience and sacrifice to others and the mission. Our men and women in uniform represent less than one percent of Americans and yet it is this force we call on to take on our enemies, protect our national interests and increasingly to advance freedom and democracy around the world. There is no paid coffee breaks, no paid prep time, no time and a half for working more than 8 hours, and certainly no 24 hours on and 48 hours off in the schedule. I tell you the ages of those heros of mine because it is the same age group that is compelled to Occupy Wall Street and as their Veteran’s Day celebration call in war protestor Joan Baez to give a concert dubbed “Honor the Dead. Fight Like Hell for the Living.” I guarantee that these young occupiers have know idea what Fight like Hell means. I have hope though, because for everyone of the occupiers I know of young Americans in ROTC programs like my son Matt at the University of Illinois and my friend Mary Plunkett’s son, Ryan who are upstanding conservatives who will keep the fight for freedom alive in the U.S.
I want to thank you again for recognizing Veterans today. As a group, we are overwhelmingly proud of our service and appreciative for the opportunity to serve our country. Those who went through the horrors of war and survived will tell you they were only doing their duty.
So, I leave you with my favorite quote from Gen Douglas MacArthur,
“Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.”Remembering those words, memorized as a cadet at West Point, I hope to serve you and rally to the mission of restoring hope in Illinois. Thank you.