On 20 August 2016 I gave the following address to Gold Star Families at Tribute To Our Fallen 2016. I joined the Mississippi Valley Patriots in honoring our Military, Law Enforcement, and Firefighters at Davenport Memorial Park. The Speech is as follows in full. It was 31 minutes in length.
I was going to start off with that whole “Lend me your ears” thing yet I did not want to get corn involved. Figure we’re in Iowa and there’s a lot of it here yet we just met and who really wants to listen to a guy who starts off any relationship asking for produce…. That would be sort of weird. I think you’ll grow to like me though, ha Alright… (smiles)…tough crowd.
I’d like to recognize and honor our military Veterans and especially our Active duty. If you have served or are serving now, would you please stand. These people standing amongst you are the walls and rooves which frame and guard our very fragile society. A society in need of constant defense through the grim profession of arms. To all that stand, and for those who cannot stand, to me you ARE the most precious of my people. Know, that you own my gratitude, and respect which is hard earned, and rarely given, I am truly in awe for that you have done, for all that you do, and for all that you WILL do.
To our young Americans here today, if you so desire to join this long line, make sure you tell them early on in boot camp that you’ll need some extra sleep in the morning and if they get a little angry about that, just say hey man, chill out, they like that because it displays your confidence and leadership potential. Ask for fancy food and talk back, a lot. They’ll treat you extra nice. I’m being serious and you can take me seriously as I’m speaking at a public event, obviously, that gives me some level of credibility.
Your place among us is earned, never given, your minds are bright, your body strong, and your hearts beat like drums are yet you will rise to stand and deliver as much is needed from you and much will be asked. And if you are allowed to earn a title among these men and women standing here you will feel fiercely this pride in your hearts which cannot be suffocated by anything in our world, not even time. Now is your time and I will hold you to all oaths sworn, and all promises made, as I am now, you too will be.
To our Gold Star families, what I will say here today, why we are here and what we are doing here, is all for you. As Prime Minister Winston Churchill said on the 20th of August 1940 to honor the gallant British Air Crews defending their nation during the Battle of Britain against the ruthless air forces of the third Reich “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” My Great Uncle lost his life over the Atlantic as a US Army Air Corps Bombardier aboard a B-24 Liberator, I come from a Gold Star Family too.
In 1864 on the quiet battlefield of Gettysburg Pennsylvania, President Lincoln during his Gettysburg address said: “We are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
Fitting and proper it was, fitting and proper it remains, fitting and proper they were, young, brave, strong and entirely magnificent. We give our fallen here the dignity by which they deserve. For them today, together we assemble to address our patriot dead.
Less than 1% of my generation signed up and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. In World War Two this figure was well over 10% of fighting age Men resting at slight above 16 million. Unlike them our numbers who fought were smaller, far more fought in a shorter war than we the few who fought in our longest. Which makes us not distinguished yet unique. Also we were older, the average age of our dead is 27 years old, MOST of us served two or more tours, WILLINGLY. Nine million Americans served in Vietnam but only 1 and a half million served in Iraq. 28 thousand of us were wounded and 92 American Women were killed in combat. One in THREE of my wartime generation will face mental health issues upon return or within the years that follow. MOST in that group suffering great mental anguish of mind, or soul, are too ashamed to get help, as they believe, they are not worthy. Not worthy.
Another matter so furiously concealed by shame is over 1,000 of my peer’s attempt to take their lives each month, ONE thousand attempts, EACH, MONTH. Almost 60 percent of veterans who were retired from the military due to a service-connected disability were under the age of 35. As a result of battle injuries in the Iraq War, 991 service members received wounds that required amputations; 797 lost major limbs. In Afghanistan, 724 service members have had to undergo amputations, 696 losing a major limb.
We fought in the longest war in American history. 2,325 died in Afghanistan, 4,497 died in Iraq.
Today I’m going to navigate you around the anger, anxiety, and confusion. Today I will mourn with you. Today I will remember them with you and offer this tribute. I need to remember all of it and I will need your help.
I’m absolutely terrified, I’ve been terrified before, yet I respect this audience more than any other and I need to get this right. This is not comfortable. See us warriors are comfortable being uncomfortable and I’ll return to that as well.
Are there any ‘kernals here? Regretfully I must report that YES that yet again was another very bad corn joke. I was just a Captain. Captains are sort of like Colonels yet we get paid about 98% less. But Captains are way more handsome and I consider that a better arrangement so thumbs up on that one.
Speaking of handsome, I’m sorry but my other face is at the cleaners, I make Shrek look like Matthew McCaughey, why do you think I had to become a Marine? I had no other way of ever getting a girlfriend. I really wanted a girlfriend and the Corps has some pretty spiffy uniforms so I thought it was a pretty damn good idea at the time.
Plus I really love danger, if someone asks me, hey Eric, would you like to go on a fully paid Hawaiian vacation? I’ll say no, that sounds absolutely terrible, invading the middle east with my friends sounds like a WAY better time, let’s do that instead.
Anyway, my plan worked, but I still don’t have a girlfriend….I just know a girl who be really upset if she ever heard me say that. Ha, I stole that line. Not only does Jessie let me venture out into public sometimes, she’s beautiful inside and out and for 8 years piloted Blackhawk Helicopters for the US Army.
I think this is really cool since I’m a failed Punk Rocker turned Marine Officer, which is like a Caveman who got a library card but seriously my IQ is roughly room temperature and I can barely read. Like, you know those signs at amusement parks that say keep your hands in the ride at all times? Those are for me. But my friend told me what they meant because I can’t read them.
I like to go fishing, but I found out you shouldn’t do it at water parks.
Jessie piloted helicopters over Afghanistan and the Korean DMZ, I on the other hand often wear Velcro shoes. That was a joke, as you can tell I’m the best at telling jokes.
Let’s talk about our friends. They did not die in vain.
We were young once, and proud, determined, yet underneath it all in the eyes of our parents forever their children we were, are, and remain. I have 13 names, some of you only have one and that one name is the only thing that matters.
Dear Mom and Dad, I’m not sure how to write you this letter. It was great to see you before I left. I was nervous to go to Iraq but I think that’s normal. I want you to know that I was with some great guys over here. Mom, I love you, and I’ll always be with you, I will always be part of you, and I will always be looking after you. Dad, I think about when we used to play catch together after you came from work. I have never been happier watching you throw me the ball. Dad I did it right, just like Grandpa. Mom and Dad I’m sorry I could not come home to you yet there was a fight and I could not sit it out. You did not raise me to quit, you did not raise to sit out on the side lines you did not raise me to turn my back on my country when my country needed me the most. You both always told me that if you don’t stand for something. I’m sorry that I couldn’t come home yet I am here with you, forever and always. I love you so much. 1st Lieutenant Eric Kirsch, United States Marine Corps.
In the late summer of 2006 I wrote to my parents that letter to be given to them by a close friend in the event of my death shortly before leaving to the fight in Iraq. My parents never received that letter, and I have not read that to anyone. Moms and Dads, we are all our sons and daughters, and we all love you more that have the capability to articulate.
It is the hard heart that kills but it’s the wounded heart that HEALS as wounded hearts are the hungriest for healing, mending the self and others are the TASKS of wounded hearts. I grief with you, each year there are 13 names which repeat their echo aloud and haunt me on certain dates as I am forced to examine again the PAIN IN MY HEART in this great lingering aftermath without end. I am ashamed to admit that I have no true formula to lend you regarding any relief to this affair, it is aggressively uncomfortable. I am a Man reduced. I’m also a liar. I am lying to you now; I am omitting finer details of my experiences. Veterans in your lives will do the same, examples will come to you.
See you raised something different. We had the idea that we couldn’t be told what to do because we already knew where we were going. In the Corps, you need to know where you are, know what you’re doing and then know where you’re going, it was nice to be around like minded people.
Many people have many reasons to join. Yet all of us did and that is what distinguishes your children. That garden you have grown has fed far more than can ever be realized. We all had the ability to do anything and we chose to do this and those who chose are the chosen few who did and do that distance required to run towards an enemy and defeat him.
Recently at a VA hospital I opened a box of milk for a Vietnam Veteran who was missing one arm. He told me during our conversation that “They can keep it, hell I never liked that tattoo anyway.” We are comfortable, being uncomfortable.
I believe I’ll always be in awe of those who came before me. Every single Man I encounter who served in World War Two I want to sit before them Indian style and listen with the faith of a child. Regarding Vietnam Veterans, they get a firm handshake from me, direct eye contact, a gregarious “Welcome Home” and are hopefully comfortable and open to the idea that a big, ugly Marine wants to give them a hug, some have not been comfortable and open that particular idea. Yet I think they appreciated the sentiment and oh boy do I enjoy new colorful language that I’ve never heard before.
Regarding my wars and please feel free to use the eggs taped under your chairs to throw at me, forgive me for saying it yet over the years, during the many deployments I lost faith in the words of our leaders. Afghanistan rendered me philosophically bankrupt and I returned home a rather broken Man. In the years that followed, I lost one of my Sergeants to suicide, my wife to divorce, some months from drinking, and lost my best friend Mike Tomai, who took his own life after three consecutive deployments to Iraq at home in Virginia on a beautiful Sunday morning in 2013.
I had Rage and shame for our General Officers who had not an ounce of conviction to speak against such massive amounts of a foolhardy strategy used under two administrations in which we applied within our longest war. What little pride I had remaining was given to honor our dead, and the minority of General Officers who spoke up in defense of the warfighters, those that intentionally scuttled their own careers in protest while firmly defending the sanctity of the young American’s they knew would disturbingly revisit two new desert set Vietnam’s. Most of these Generals were Junior Officers in Vietnam. Most were forced to retire, or blatantly ignored.
I’ve got five in the ground from suicide. Warriors all.
Uncountable divorces befell my friends, there have been four attempted suicides. There have been missed memories, there have been intentionally skipped family events, there has been isolation, and I in the past have planned my own death.
Nothing I do will bring any of them back, communicating, sharing ourselves raw with self & others, seeking peace for ourselves and chasing that elusive enlightenment, that’s still worth it to me, one thing we know is fighting, yet coming home for some of us was a unwelcomed fight. A fight we did not invite, expect, or enjoy. Yet we are comfortable being uncomfortable.
I tell Marines who suffer, it is ok to miss them, Brother it’s ok to feel this way, it’s ok to feel pain. But what you CANNOT DO is DO NOTHING, WHAT YOU CANNOT DO IS SIT ALONE IN THE DARK, WHAT YOU CANNOT DO IS GIVE IN AND GIVE UP TO DEATH. DEATH WILL COME, DON’T CHASE IT. These are things we do not do as those things are NOTHING. WE, do NOT do nothing, nothing has no value, nothing is not a single thing, so turn your backs to darkness and shine as bright as those who came before you, they were no different than us, never give up, never surrender, do not flirt with easier opportunities to escape, Marines are things that DO, MARINES DO NOT FORGET, MARINES DO NOT FORGIVE, MARINES DO NOT ALLOW THEMSELVES TO BE DEFEATED SO DO ONE FIRST THING AND THAT ONE FIRST THING IS TO RISE AND REMEMBER THEM. YOU DO NOT HAVE PERMISSION TO FAIL!
IT IS NOT THE THINGS WE DO IN LIFE THAT WE REGRET, IT IS THE THINGS WE DO NOT DO THAT ARE MOST REGRETABLE, AND I KNOW IN MY HEART THAT OUR FRIENDS DIED…WITHOUT REGRET. THEY WERE FITTING AND PROPER. IT IS FITTING THEY SHOULD BE FITTINGLY MOURNED AND CELEBRATED!
You do not have permission to fail our friends. And if you need to scream, cry, cry out, or feel the warmth of my arms around you, scream with me, I will cry with you, I will cry out to you and ask you simply promise ME and YOURSELF to live with me in this time we are so briefly blessed with and DEDICATE your life to live WELL in sacred promise to them.
Marines do not look up to you, we do not look down on you, we simply look STRAIGHT AHEAD. I discovered most Marines are nice, bright people who seek first to understand and it’s nice to be around them. I do not miss the Marine Corps yet I do miss Marines. They make you smile, they’re troublemakers yet they’ll make you smile. All Men are created equal yet we do not all die that way. For some, old age does not become them. The flame that burns twice as bright lasts half as long, and the warrior heart burns brightly. They put their bodies in between us, and oblivion. With restlessness do we stir in their absence.
Our Warriors are many stars in the same constellation and do not truly die until their name is forgotten. I cannot forget.
Diving deeper into the realm I recall my time as an NCIS Agent who conducted a particular service at Dover Air Force Base Port Mortuary Affairs. On many occasions, I performed my duties there in capacity of observatory official to the most difficult of events proceeding an American death in war. They come in as they fall. The watches worn on their wrists are still on and keep time, with wedding bands still on their fingers they wore the armor of war. I remember clearly fighting to retain my composure, conceal the ache I felt inside, fulfilling my duties and in between nearly breaking down reflecting upon what it took them to earn the right to wear that armor. I recall the words of an Army Doctor who said that many of those who fell came in without blood on their gloves. Within his poignant observations over his many years as a Medical Examiner he remarked that nearly all of them had gloves or hands free of our redness as they had NOT interrupted their fighting to stem their own blood loss. Think about that.
Despite suffering grievous wounds, they continued to shoulder their weapons and fire, intentionally ignoring their own condition to simply do their jobs for and with their friends.
They endured years of training, dealing with filth, fear, doubt, pain, hatred and rage, to earn the right to fight for their country. To earn the right to travel across more than half of this Earth for others and to suffer if need be. These were men and women who felt fear yet did fearless things. These were men and women who had no crisis of identity, these were men and women made strong by families of strength and never knew their full value as they never stopped to ask for a thing other than what more can I do. The things that they did, which I saw them do, are a direct reflection of their upbringing. Their roots were well watered, their words and actions all straight strong and true. They took and shouldered rifles and leap into the pure hell of a land on fire which killed everything it could as quickly as it could and they went willingly.
Let me tell you what we faced there. The first thing which touches my memory are the faces of my friends. Clad in desert uniforms, with dirty jokes and great profanity we did our jobs and the jobs we did went well. Despite the difficult landscapes, where tragedy was routine, the mental toughness and physical endurance exhibited could not be replicated by anyone anywhere who did not already own everything needed to be successful doing anything. These were the type of Men who could do anything on this planet and they chose to do this.
Why would anyone choose to do this? In 2007 there were Marines of my community conducting Human Source Intelligence Operations. It was a job that required great patience and precision in the most dangerous areas of Iraq, their ultimate goal, was to collect information that would save American lives. Iraq and Afghanistan were tough, yet Marines are tougher. At no point during their deployment was any job started not completed. The things we did are what we lived for, and what we lived for, ultimately, was knowing everyone and even those walking their own way, walked together, fought together and some of us died together while living for each other.
The most remarkable thing to me, above all else as I understand it now was that NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON ON THIS PLANET WAS SUCCESSFUL AT TALKING THEM OUT OF DOING THIS.
They created their own futures, no matter how inviting or appetizing it was to do something else in life they decided to do one of the HARDEST jobs which has ever existed. They put their own lives on the line for strangers, strangers who if we are being honest often do not understand WHY we did it, do not agree with HOW we did it, and some of whom will regurgitate an empty “thanks for your service” then detest our very existence behind our own backs. Some do not understand why we fight, some do not understand and fought for a protection they could never provide, in a job they could not truly appreciate, assist with or even ever understand. It’s not a job, it was our life, and the people that do it MAKE THIS COUNTRY POSSIBLE.
My friends could motivate and inspire. They could shake and manipulate success from failure as they were Men not unfamiliar with failure yet allergic to accepting it. We faced facts with decisions that enabled the conception of family in a land which is hostile to all living things. We walked through fields of fire with ONE beating heart, one beating heart of many faces, and many names, one beating heart that has yet to trade its beating roar in war for silence now at home.
My Brothers are heroes to me, as they are what I cannot be, together we were our finest form. I am a man reduced yet not defeated and I miss them. You cannot build anything without going through a battle.
These Men came with the whip of attitude I can best describe as swagger, an omnipotent air of confidence which could engender pure optimism from even the most diehard cynic.
A fighting unit is a family, and family comes first.
During my first firefight I was reminded why the American fighting man is a leviathan of human history. During a magazine reload I heard someone scream “Hey Sir, this MOVIE SUCKS.” THAT, ladies and Gentleman, THAT ATTITUDE ITSELF is a brutal divorce of logical temperament and the abandonment of reason. THAT IS WHAT MAKES THIS COUNTRY POSSIBLE. Those who say NO, I REFUSE TO ALLOW paralysis, I refuse to allow myself to let down my friends, I refuse to lay down and die. On that day humor defeated horror, laughter rained and we then poured fire upon our opponents and we destroyed them. We are comfortable, being uncomfortable.
Anyone can believe, yet it is the strong who have faith. The strongest however, have faith in the faithless.
I surround myself with those who chose influences very carefully. Wisdom is not made with easy thinking; critical thinking is the weight room of your mind. I’ve discovered that my life has been permanently altered by knowing 13 names. I miss my friends, every day these 13 names patrol my mind.
I ask all of them what they want me to do. I ask all of them what they’d wish for those who miss them. I ask all of them what they would do if they were still here, if they saw me at my lowest moments and I ask what would they tell me. They tell me to live a life of passion, they beg us to continue to dream, they tell me to be gentle and vulnerable.
Sadness, depression, anxiety is seeing the worst and creating an interpretation of it. You and I can be so damaged we risk being destroyed by something due to our thoughts about it never because of that thing itself. Most often, that which we delay doing is what we most need to do. THAT, WHICH WE DELAY DOING IS WHAT WE MOST NEED TO DO.
Sometimes anger is useful, anger may be used as energy to construct and fill with seed the bed of healing, grow it high and then from it feed. Now is not the time for formality, now is the time for familiarity to become proficiently intimate and obsessed with solutions. I am obsessed with solutions and yet again we find ourselves before a fight. It is how you choose to face a fight which will negotiate its end. Judge not according to appearances, judge instead how willing you are to embrace the challenges in the toughness of life made tougher by loss and wonder how you both appear and are perceived before it all. Find comfort in being uncomfortable. Yet I’ll ask you as Americans all, are WE now being led or are we being led ALONG.
It’s hard, all of it, this world and our lives make no mistake and you can count on that yet you alone are the determining factor, if you want something enough and cannot find it you then create it. Our friends are worth that. In life and in death, a unit is a family, and family comes first.
I say to you, that which we should focus on together, that which we hold close to our breast cannot ever be far from us, and no Warrior has truly died until his name is forgotten.
I’ll close with the following story.
On the night and early morning of August 8th 1942, nineteen-year-old Signalman 3rd Class Elgin Staples of Akron, Ohio was serving aboard the cruiser USS Astoria in support of the landings on Guadalcanal. Staples and his crewmates suddenly found themselves illuminated by spotlight and under attack by a force of Imperial Japanese Heavy cruisers north of Savo Island. At approximately 0200 hours the Astoria suffered a direct hit from a Japanese shell. The explosion swept Signalman Staples into the air and threw him overboard.
Signalman Staples, dazed and wounded in his legs by shrapnel, kept afloat thanks to a simple mechanism inflatable rubber life-belt he had donned shortly before the explosion.
4 hours later at dawn Staples along with other survivors were rescued by the destroyer USS Bagley to assist the Astoria, which was heavily damaged but attempting to beach itself in the shallow waters off Guadalcanal. Staples returned aboard his heavily listing ship and aided in efforts to save the ship. These efforts failed, and the USS Astoria sunk at approximately 1200 hours. This put Staples back into the water for a second time, Staples was still wearing the same life-belt.
Rescued a second time by the transport USS President Jackson Signalman Staples was first evacuated to New Caledonia to recover from his injuries before his return home. It was while on board the President Jackson that Staples first examined the life-belt which had saved him closely and was surprised to find that it had been manufactured in his hometown of Akron, Ohio by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. He also noticed an unusual set of numbers stamped on the belt.
Returning home to Akron, Signalman Staples thought to bring along the life-belt that had saved him to show his family.
After a quietly emotional welcome, he sat with his mother in her kitchen, telling her about his recent ordeal and hearing what had happened at home since he had gone away. His mother informed him that “to do her part,” she had gotten a wartime job at the Firestone plant. Surprised, he jumped up and grabbed his life belt from his duffel bag and put it on the table in front of her.
“Take a look at that, Mom,” he said, “It was made right here in Akron, at your plant.”
She leaned forward and taking the rubber belt in her hands, she read the label and peered closer at its Quality Control Inspection Number. She had just heard the story and knew that in the darkness of that terrible night, it was this one piece of rubber that had saved his life. Holding the belt with trembling hands, “Son, I’m an inspector at Firestone.” She said with her voice shaking, and barely above a whisper. “This inspector number, is mine.”
Mother’s love has not an end, Mom’s and Dad’s we are all your Sons and Daughters. Forget the war but do not forget the Warrior.
Semper Fidelis and God Bless America.