Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie

National Cemetery Dedication Ceremony, Acadia, Maine
Acadia, Maine
July 29, 2020

I’m going to get off script here for a minute and talk about a story of Maine.

It’s a story of a teenager, 17-years-old, thrust into the greatest conflict the world had ever seen. His family had a lumber business up near the Canadian border. And as a young teenager, he was placed into the most ferocious battle ever fought by the Army of the United States—The Battle of the Bulge. Entire regiments were overwhelmed.  Some actually, for the first time since the Battle of Bull Run, broke and ran. It was teenagers like this young man who didn’t have time to think of a future life that, in his case, would lead him to not only run the family business, be the mayor of his hometown, serve in the Maine State House in both the House and the Senate, and watch his daughter become a United States Senator and a voice for Veterans. 

That Veteran of Maine was Donald Collins. In his own way, he represented the spirit of the 41 million Americans who have been called to arms since the first shots were fired on Lexington Green in April of 1775. And that is the spirit of Maine.

I often wonder about people who come to Maine, and they immediately deflect to a story about the greatest of your warriors, Joshua Chamberlain. Joshua Chamberlain represented people throughout history like Donald Collins. And I think the greatest contribution that Joshua Chamberlain made to America and to the future of the world was an assignment that not many people know about. They know about his heroism. They know what he did at Gettysburg and Petersburg. But when the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia surrendered, it was General Grant who gave the task of accepting that surrender to his most decorated and honored soldier, Joshua Chamberlain of Bowdoin College.

And as that once proud army marched to surrender, most of those soldiers—there were only about 25,000 of them left—had no idea what would happen to them. Some thought they would be sent to a prison camp. Others thought that they would be executed on the spot. And as they approached the end of the line to give up their arms a loud roar came from a Mainer on a horse who yelled, “Present arms,” the universal sign for soldiers of respect, for an equal, and the Maine regiments who were carrying out the honor of surrender snapped to attention. And Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain moved to the front of the line, he withdrew his saber and issued the most dramatic salute ever given in American history. It was his way of saying it was time to be Americans again. That is the spirit of this state.

Senator Collins so eloquently said, “No state serves in greater numbers than the citizens of Maine.” During the Civil War, no state gave more to the cause than Maine did. So that is why this place is so important. It fulfills the charge that we at VA try to live up to every day, and that most powerful address ever given by a President of the United States, the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln delivered a few short weeks before his martyrdom when he said it was time to put away the sword. It was time to come together, but in so doing we had to ensure “malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in,  . . . to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  

That is why we are here. To honor those ordinary Americans like young Donald Collins from Caribou Maine who were called upon to do extraordinary things on behalf of this, the last great hope of man on earth.

And what you see around us is also a vision of General Chamberlain. About a year after the Civil War ended, the Army of the United States, then under the command of General Sherman, William Tecumseh Sherman, decided to honor the fallen of both sides by creating cemeteries and engaging in ceremonies. And it was General Chamberlain who wrote a letter to General Sherman that said let us call it decoration. Let us put wreaths and flowers and garlands on the graves of all who fell in that conflict so that they will never be forgotten.

So, at ceremonies like this, it is sometimes difficult to find the words to express our reverence and our thanks. As Senator Collins pointed out, there was one set of words issued on a cold October day in Gettysburg that really encapsulates what this cemetery is about and what the fighting spirit of the people of Maine have done. And the President said, that “in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

So, let me say thank you. Thank you to the people of Maine. Thank you to my friend of now 30 years, Senator Collins. Thank you to those who have done so much to preserve the memory of Veterans.

And I’m going to pick up on something Senator Collins said. She was kind enough to mention my father. He was a huge man for his day, 6’2”, 240. That’s not even a quarterback today, but in 1970 that was big. And he was terribly wounded during the invasion of Cambodia. He came back to us weighing 120 pounds. It took him three years to recover, but he recovered and rejoined his unit, the 82nd Airborne Division. He was decorated in the Armed Force of the United States. But wearing that red beret, he was not even allowed to wear his uniform off post. You see, there were no Wreaths Across America, there were no people in the streets saying thank you for your service, except probably in the small towns of this state, my home state, North Carolina. But that’s what has changed. Americans, of all stripes, of all philosophies, realized that freedom is shared. The freedoms that we hold deeply are given to us not by protesters and pundits and professors, but they’re given to us on the shoulders of the newest of those 41 million Americans who have sacrificed all, done all, to preserve the freedoms of this country. 

So I will close this thanks for what you all do and what you mean by giving you a story of the greatest of Airborne warriors, Matthew Bunker Ridgway, who led the All American Division to victory in North Africa and Sicily. And General Eisenhower tasked him with the duty of planning the airborne assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe. And that was the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, the All Americans of the 82nd, and the Red Devils of the British 1st Airborne.

On the night before the assault, the general couldn’t sleep. He actually fell out of his cot. And he reached for the Old Testament and he turned to the Book of Joshua and, at the time, the most ferocious battle in the history of the Hebrew people, the Battle of Jericho. And he underlined in pencil God’s promise to the great general that I shall not fail thee nor forsake thee. In 1986, Ronald Reagan awarded General Ridgway the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He said, “Heroes come when they are needed; great men step forward when courage seems in short supply.” So, this day is about never failing, nor forsaking. It is about great men and women, ordinary men and women like Senator Collins’ father, who stepped forward when courage seemed in very short supply.

So, I thank you for dedicating this hallowed ground. I thank you for everything that you do—the preservation of our liberties and for the maintenance and the beauty of this great place, the last best hope of man on earth. 

God Bless you. God Bless the people of Maine. And thank you all very much.