I watched them march down the street in their old and tattered uniforms. Old men with bent backs and potbellies, gray hair and bad knees. And yet they were a proud bunch, that band of old soldiers. The flags rippled and snapped. Rifle barrels gleamed in the sunshine. The clomp, clomp, clomp, of their marching feet echoed down the street as everyone became quiet and put their hands over their hearts. I was just a kid and I was proud.
I giggled and acted like a clown as I saluted the flag in my boy scout uniform. My scoutmaster, Dwaine (Pinky) Nelson, took me aside for a short talk. He told me that men had died so I could salute that flag, and I should remember that and show more respect. I could tell from the hurt in his eyes that he was very disappointed in me, and I was ashamed. I never forgot his words. From then on, whenever I saluted the flag, I remembered what my scoutmaster, a World War II veteran, had taught me. Thank you Mr. Nelson.
I found a box of old photographs tucked away in my father's closet. There were pictures of a handsome young man in a sailor's uniform, my father, in a time before I knew him. There were old and yellowing military papers there too, citations recognizing gallantry under fire. The papers told of a brave young man who swam through oil fires on the water to rescue wounded and dying men from a sinking ship. Dad had never told me that story before. Thank you, my father, for your always-good example.
As a boy, I played Taps on my trumpet at the cemetery on Veteran's Day while old soldiers fired a rifle salute. The VFW men were wearing ribbons and stripes, polished brass and shiny shoes. They stood in a firm, straight line in the shadow of the flag as Fred Davis and I rendered Taps as best we could. I had never seen grown men cry before. Thank you, American Legion and VFW guys, for the service you render to our country.
The bullet had passed through the lower part of his handsome face, ripping his cheek and breaking his teeth. He was back at work now, but the scars would never heal. And yet, he stood before us proudly, wearing his sergeant stripes and talking with a lisp. His eyes burned bright above the scars. He was a drill sergeant and he had a job to do. Thank you, my sergeant, for your courage, your service, your fine example, and the things you taught me.
Someone tied a little American flag to a broken tree trunk on a battlefield in Vietnam. To see it there made me very humble and very proud. It was so small and unimposing, and yet the heavens shook with the power that it radiated. That little flag represented everything we were fighting for: home, family, and all that was dear. That little flag gave me courage when I needed to be brave. It gave me hope when things looked bad. It gave me comfort when my heart was heavy. It gave me peace when I counted the cost. Thank you, young soldier, whoever you were, for putting that symbol where I could see it when I needed to be reminded.
I watched them take the flag from the casket and fold it neatly before presenting it to a grieving widow. Gun smoke lingered in the air from the rifle salute. Goodbye my old friend, Jim Noyes. How many of your neighbors never knew that you and your machine-gun went ashore under fire three different times? Thank you, all of you silent, unassuming veterans out there, who gave your best and get so little recognition for it.
I recently spoke with a woman who lost her only son, her only child, to the Vietnam War. She has been childless now for thirty-seven years, and still she mourns. And yet, she is not bitter. She thanked me for my service. It broke my heart. Thank you, Stella Mobley, for the sacrifice you and so many other mothers have made for our country.
My son, Rex, came home from Somalia wearing sergeant stripes and a chest full of ribbons. He was not the boy who went to join the army. He was a man now and I looked up to him. Thank you, my son, for making your parents proud.
I watched the young man walk into Wal-Mart with three or four of his friends. He was different from the other guys. Though not as tall as some, he stood taller than them all. There was an air of self-confidence in his countenance and a spring in his step. He was a combat Marine, home to go to college and start the rest of his life. I was proud of him, and I went to shake his hand.
Welcome home from Iraq, young Brett Edwards, and thank you for your service to our country.