I was fortunate to get to speak at the City of San Francisco Memorial Day Ceremony.
I’ve been asked by a few people to share the text from the speech.
Here it is:
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here with you today to celebrate and honor those who’ve given their all defending this amazing country.
I’d like to pose a question to those of you listening today:
What’s the best way to honor those who’ve died serving this country?
I’ll let you think about that for a while.
What exactly is Memorial Day?
let me give you the official version, fresh off the google machine with the help of history.com:
“Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971.
As a teenager, I knew that I wanted to be in the military and that I wanted to be face to face, eye to eye with the people who wanted to do us Americans harm.
After a few years and some significant self-imposed speed bumps, I made it into the Special Operations community.
I remember my first few Memorial Day ceremonies in the military.
I remember them seeming distant and impersonal.
I didn’t really know the people we were talking about at those Memorial Day events back then
However I did know I was a candidate and I was standing with candidates to be remembered on future memorial days.
I was foolish and young and self-centered.
I guess I’m still those things, well..except for young, but it seems I can hide them better now.
After a little over a decade in the SEAL Teams, I started losing friends on post 9/11 missions to places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
I remember being angry when I lost those friends because I felt as though the general public really didn’t care.
I felt like my buddies had died and the only people who really felt the sting of their loss were those of us who were close to them.
I’d like to talk about one of my dead buddies
I am carrying him close in my heart today.
He died in Afghanistan.
He was a better man than I.
Today I’ll refer to my buddy as “Yankee.”
Yankee actually grew up here in California. I refer to him as Yankee because he always wore or had a NY Yankees hat with him, including when he went on missions.
I asked him once about the whole Yankees hat thing. He told me,
“look man, I want the last thing that the people we are fighting to see before they die is a symbol of NY.
What they and their buddies did to NY and DC on 9/11 needs to be the last thing they think about in this world.”
Yankee was one of the Americans who deployed immediately after 9/11.
He continued to do combat deployments until he and 30 other Americans were killed in August of 2011.
He went to combat again and again and again.
He never let up. He died on his way to a fight.
Yankee left a family and he left those of us who knew him well with memories that we will carry with us always.
One of my favorite, random memories of Yankee was how he’d gather with a few of us and smoke “Lucky Strike” cigarettes prior to boarding the Helicopters for a mission.
None of us were really smokers, it was just a thing we did and we considered it good luck.
Yankee always looked at us and smirked as he broke the filter off of his cigarette.
He never said it, but we knew he was scoffing at us for being weak and needing a filter.
Yankee was tough and cunning and extremely driven.
Another memory I have of Yankee took place right before we left on a pretty dangerous parachute mission in Afghanistan.
We were sitting on the tailgate of a special C-130 airplane with all of our gear on, parachute system, guns, bombs etc.
and someone was about to take our picture, he and I were next to each other and he looked at me and said “This pic will be the one they put on the memorial wall!”
He was Inferring that we were were not going to come back from that mission. He laughed as he said it and so did I. I miss his sense of humor.
Yankee is a good example of those we celebrate today. They knew the risks. They knew that they could perish.
The majesty of that decision to go, even if it could kill you, cannot be overstated.
Yankee, like many Americans, volunteered to serve. Not just once, but every single time he went on a mission.
He spent years away from his family, living in crappy places.
He did it for a decade, with very few breaks.
Why did he do it?
I think That is the thing we need to understand today.
The thing that Memorial Day should etch onto the hard-drive between our ears and even more importantly, into the beating hearts in our chest.
It is the most important part of the relationship between those who go and fight and those who stay here.
He did it, like so many others, because he truly believed that he was participating in an endeavor to protect the place where humans could reach their full potential.
He believed in the best of America.
America is undoubtedly flawed and troubled. We always have been.
But America is a place where the word “opportunity” actually means something.
One could argue that the wars fought by Americans before and after the inception of “Decoration day AKA Memorial Day” were fought about opportunity.
It is a noble idea. The idea that no matter what, in America, one has opportunity.
Now, I know there are significant disagreements about how we create opportunity for everyone, but nobody can argue that opportunity isn’t important.
It is an American tenet.
And in the case of those we are here to remember, it was and is a tenet worth dying for.
Now the tough part.
The answer to the question I asked at the beginning of this speech.
How do we best honor those who’ve died fighting for this country?
I’ve put quite a bit of thought into this because I’ve lost some very good friends in combat and I often wonder what they would say if they were here to talk about it.
I believe they would say something like, “live your life full.” Don’t waste time on platitudes and fluffy language, ribbons and bumper stickers.
Actually work on living a Good life and helping those around you. Especially those with less opportunity.
Do something daily to make the lives of other Americans better.
See, the guys I know who fought and died over the last 18 years were not big on ceremony, they were big on actualities, big on results.
I believe that When we leave this beautiful ceremony today and get on with our lives, the real work of honoring those who’ve died while serving this nation begins.
It begins in small quiet ways that aren’t on stage for everyone to see.
It begins in how we treat one another, how we work to ensure that the America whose destiny we hold in our hands today points towards the ideal that those who’ve died defending it would be proud of.
debate in a respectful way, the ways to make our country better.
Respectfully Hold our elected officials accountable for the missions they send our military to execute.
Volunteer. Seek out opportunities to improve our communities.
Take care of each other. Be good to each other.
It is our obligation and the most meaningful way we can honor the memory of those brave souls who left us too soon while fighting on our behalf.
Today I love Memorial Day
It compels me.
I hope it will compel you.
Live your life full.
Don’t waste a second of it.
That’s what Yankee would want.
I’m sure of it.”