Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie
Memorial Day remarks
May 25, 2020
Thank you all very much. Congressman Wittman, Colonel Bentley, Sergeant Major Hensley, Chaplin Ginther, Marines, Director Sanders, friends, Secretary Hutton and Gina Farrisee and Delegate Anderson, thank you very much.
Memorial Day has its origins from the area that we are in today. Never had our nation seen so much bloodshed. 620,000 Americans died in that terrible conflict. In Spotsylvania County, the county right next door, 100,000 Americans fell from December of 1862 to May of 1864. But for many years after that war, there was no nationally recognized Memorial Day.
But Americans didn’t wait for the government to designate a day to remember their loved ones. They simply started decorating thousands of headstones for the fallen each spring to remember their sacrifice. Those Americans took their cue from a quiet man from Illinois. Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address was the speech he considered the most important speech he ever delivered. He gave it to America 41 days before his death. Lincoln talked about freedom, and the pestilential war America was in. He talked about God’s punishment, and that that war would last as long as God deemed necessary.
As he said, “If God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsmen’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn of the last shall be paid with another drawn by the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so it must be still said today, that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous all together.”
And from that belief in freedom came Lincoln’s last wish: that if America as a nation values liberty, it must care for the soldiers who fight for it, and for the families who gave their lives in its defense.
Lincoln said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see that right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphan. To do all of which we may achieve and cherish, a just a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Those words delivered on March 4th, 1865 still guide us today, 150 years after they were spoken. The inform our mission at our department, to care for our living veterans, but also for their families. That is why later this year we will memorialize that speech of Abraham Lincoln’s by placing it in bronze in all of our nation’s VA cemeteries.
Today we remember and thank more than one million men and woman who died so that they might give life to this nation, the last best hope of man. There has never been anything in history like the American warrior. No matter where, no matter under what conditions, these Americans have offered, with helping hands to all of the peoples of the world, including their enemies. As General Powell once said, the only thing Americans ever ask of anyone is a place to bury our dead.
I am the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier. I grew up at Ft. Bragg. I saw the cost of war through the eyes of a child. When a classmate from kindergarten or elementary school was called to the principal’s office, there was always a chance that that child was not going to a doctor’s appointment. There was bad news in Southeast Asia.
That happened in April of 1975. Master Sergeant Denning Cicero Johnson of Harnett County, North Carolina was an Air Force Medic. He had already served several tours in Vietnam when Gerald Ford called upon the spirit of the American warrior to help those in great need. President Ford initiated Operation Baby Lift to evacuate all of the orphanages in Saigon before the arrival of the communists. On April 4th, 1975, Sergeant Johnson, taking care of well over a hundred orphans, took off in an Air Force C5. That C5 did not make it past the runway of Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Eleven airmen, including Sergeant Johnson, lost their lives that day, as well as one hundred orphans.
Last year, on April 4th, forty-five years after that tragedy, I was privileged to take my friend, our family friend Denise, whose father name was one of the last placed on that wall, section 1W of that Memorial, and I watched her touch that name, the name that embodies everything the American warrior stands for, and everything that this nation means to the rest of the world.
I will conclude with the thoughts of the greatest of all airborne warriors. Matthew Ridgway. General Ridgway commanded the All American Division to Victory in North Africa and Sicily. And General Eisenhower tasked him with planning the airborne assault on Hitler’s fortress Europe, beginning on the night of June 5th, 1944. General Ridgway commanded the All Americans, the Screaming Eagles and the Red Devils of the British 1st Airborne.
But the night before the invasion, he could not sleep. He was so restless that he almost fell out of his cot, but for sustenance he reached for the Old Testament, the Book of Joshua and the promise God gave to Joshua on the eve of the Battle of Jericho. And Joshua was promised, from the Almighty, “I shall not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” In 1986, Ronald Regan presented General Ridgway with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And he said, “Heroes come when they are needed, great mean step forward when courage seems in short supply.”
Memorial Day is about neither failing nor forsaking those great men and women who stepped forward when courage always seems in short supply. So on behalf of the President of the United States, I thank you. I thank you for remembering the men and women who have preserved freedom, not only for our nation, but have been a beacon of hope for the entire world. Thank you. (Applause).