Remarks by Craig Shirley at the Essex County Memorial Day Ceremony


May 29th, 10am.

18740657_1935669919792191_2958787799036264261_nThank you, Commissioner Blackwell, very much for your kind introduction and invited speaker for this Essex County Memorial Day Ceremony. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and the honored guests here today, American veterans, heroes all — and those who are not here, but who live in our minds and hearts forever.

We come here today to observe Memorial Day, to honor those who have paid the ultimate price to defend us and defend the world. Established in 1868, this holiday was originally designated Decoration Day, to commemorate the Union losses of the Civil War. The South similarly had a day to remember their fallen — this was called Memorial Day. No greater honor is extended than to remember our honored dead. And after the Civil War, the ladies of the South established the Association for the Beautification of the Graves of the Glorious Dead. Writers and politicians and civic leaders have often noted that it is the women at home who often bear the hardest burdens of war. My grandmother’s hair went white within days of learning of the death of her son — my uncle — in World War II. She never recovered from her grief.

Too many times over the recent years, we sometimes hear young Americans ask why we commemorate Memorial Day? As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up, we may answer — it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go some whither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate.”

The War of Independence, the War of 1812, the Barbary Wars against the brutal Muslims, the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, both World Wars, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Three centuries in — and the United States has become and remains the leader of the Free World. We owe so much to the men and women who have fought through history, some of whom are here today. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.” So said Abraham Lincoln in his timeless Gettysburg Address. Over a century later, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, President Ronald Reagan said on a windswept cliff overlooking Normandy Beach, “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.” As was said of a young man during the Civil War, “I saw the flame of genius and daring on his face.”

These heroes are all around us.

“I have a rendezvous with Death,” wrote Alan Seeger, who died at the Battle of the Somme in World War One. “At some disputed barricade, / When Spring comes back with rustling shade / And apple blossoms fill the air— I have a rendezvous with Death / When Spring brings back blue days and fair.” But still, he promised he would not turn away from his duty. “And I to my pledged word am true, I shall not fail that rendezvous.”

Here in Essex County, we see the effects of war. From the French and Indian Wars of the 1750s, up to the present day, Virginians have fought both at home and abroad. The Civil War and World War II in particular have a long list of the Essex dead. And we honor them, too. Douglas MacArthur once succinctly said to the cadets of West Point, “You are the leaven which binds together the entire fabric of our national system of defense. From your ranks come the great captains who hold the Nation’s destiny in their hands the moment the war toxins sounds.”

Take, for example, these boys of Essex. Robert Green, who died in 1950 at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in Korea. Take two cousins, Robert and Richard Garnett, both Brigadier Generals in the Civil War. Robert died in West Virginia near Corrick’s Ford, and Richard died during Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg. Others like William Leonard Hall and Frank Smith Jeffries served and died in World War One. These locals, a century apart, made the ultimate sacrifice. They believed in their cause, love for freedom, their family, and their country. And many others of Essex have also nobly served.

Since 1775, the Shirley and Cone families have heard the call to arms. Henry Cone, my mother’s great grandfather, was in the Connecticut militia, when he was sent to Boston to join General George Washington’s command.

After joining the regular army, Henry Cone proceeded to fight under Washington for seven years, including at Valley Forge, when he lost an eye due to smallpox. His son Andrew served in the War of 1812. Shirleys and Cones fought on both sides in the Civil War, fought as doughboys in the First World War and my uncle, my father’s oldest brother, Barney, made the ultimate sacrifice — he was shot down and killed in the Pacific on his 20th birthday in January of 1945.

My father served in the Army during the Korean War, his other brother in the Marine Corps. My mother’s brothers served in Europe and Korea. Both my grandmothers were Rosie the Riveters in World War II. One tested machine guns — and the other was a bomb inspector.

More recently, our son Andrew was a Navy Corpsman during the Iraq War — and our nephew Nathan, a Lance Corporal in the U.S. Marines drove a tank in the Iraq War, moving from Kuwait to Bagdad and all the way to Tikrit, traveling farther and faster than any tank unit in American history.

Bravery and heroism transcend generations and surpass time. John Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961, said that, “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.” He said further that “the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” It’s a wonderful testament to our Judeo-Christian heritage. We don’t embrace Empire — we don’t conquer. We liberate, and when we are done, we sometime ask the country we saved for a bit of land on which to bury our dead, as General Colin Powell once sagely observed.

American men have fought and died and suffered for others and those principles, men who have sacrificed their all for loved ones and for strangers, for their neighbors and for the neighbors of others. They fought, sweated, and bled together. “Nothing, in truth, can ever replace a lost companion,” said French aviator and World War One veteran, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “Old comrades cannot be manufactured. There is nothing that can equal the treasure of so many shared memories, so many bad times endured together, so many quarrels, reconciliations, heartfelt impulses. Friendships like that cannot be reconstructed.”

Families were made among soldiers — and inseparable brotherhoods are forged in the fires of war. Scripture tells us this importance: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” The theme of sacrifice and selflessness are prominent throughout Judeo-Christian theology and culture — Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, Moses not being allowed into the Promised Land. Today, the men and women on the frontlines who don uniforms for our great country exemplify that selflessness for their fellow brothers and sisters.

“In war there is no substitute for victory,” General MacArthur announced in his retirement, ending a half-century long and distinguished career for the people of his country and the world. The men who fought in war brought that victory. They more than anyone are the backbone of this nation and of the free world. We mourn them and thank these men and women for all their heroism — for all time. They have touched the face of God.

As Holmes once said, “But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death — of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.”

And to the men and women here who have served in the wars after, America and the world thank you. For your service, for your sacrifice, and for your love of freedom.

A debt is owed which can never be repaid, a cherished memory which will never be forgotten.

Thank you.