Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Thoughts on Veterans Day

Thoughts on Veterans Day

The following address was delivered by Michael Noonan at the University of Scranton’s Veterans Association luncheon on Friday, November 9, 2012.

First of all I want to say that I am honored and humbled to address all of you here today. To my fellow veterans, and future veterans, in the audience, be you students, faculty, staff, or clergy, I want to thank each and every one of you for your service to our nation. I also want to thank anyone present who is the relative, spouse, significant other, or friend of a veteran. Your contributions are sometimes overlooked, but are of tremendous importance to veterans both when serving down range and especially once we return home. Last, but certainly not least, a special thanks goes to Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Remley, the Professor of Military Science here at the University, for extending the invitation for me to be here today.

It is a pleasure to join with you in fellowship during this observance of what should be one of the high holy days of the American civil religion. Veterans Day, as the Veteran Administration’s website states, is “A celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”  Unlike Memorial Day, it should be a joyous occasion.

The origin of the holiday lies in the conclusion of the First World War. While the Treaty of Versailles formally concluded hostilities, the Armistice that ceased combat operations occurred on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The hubris that surrounded that selection of this highly symbolic ceasefire date and time was matched only by the idealism that the destruction of this modern industrial, global war would make it the war to end all wars.

In November 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. Congress officially recognized the end of the First World War in a resolution in June 1926, but it took until May 1938 for November 11th of each year to be officially recognized as a legal holiday. In June 1954, after the conclusion of the Second World War and the end of fighting in Korea, the Congress amended the 1938 legislation so that Armistice Day became Veterans Day “so that November 11th became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.” (And since we are talking about dates, and purple is one of Scranton’s school colors, I would be remiss without wishing a one-day early happy 237th birthday to any Marines in the audience here today.)

It is especially meaningful for me to be with you because this is the place where I earned my commission as an Army Reserve Armor officer back in 1993. The Cadre and Cadets each taught me a lot and the training opportunities afforded to me have provided me with both important life lessons and fond memories.

But more importantly, it is particularly fitting to be speaking here because the University of Scranton is a Jesuit school. St. Ignatius of Loyola, after all, is not only the founder of the Society of Jesus, but he was also a veteran. In fact, in today’s parlance he was not only a veteran, but a “wounded warrior.”

In May of 1521 at the age of 30 Ignatius of Loyola served as a military officer in the defense of Pamplona against the French. The Spaniards were terribly outnumbered. The Spanish commander, in fact, wanted to surrender, but Ignatius convinced him to fight on. During the battle a cannon ball struck Ignatius, breaking one leg and wounding the other. Because the French admired his courage, French soldiers carried him back to recuperate at the castle of Loyola, his home, rather than imprison him. The picture on the left of the screen is of the statue of the wounded St. Ignatius of Loyola.

During his trying convalescence he would begin his journey from soldier to man of God. Now this is not to drive at any religious point, rather, I think, at least, it is illustrative that our service affects each of us in different ways and can open new pathways even when sometimes we think we’ve reached dead ends. And each of us will someday take off the uniform whether it is after two, ten, twenty, or thirty-plus years.

(As an aside, if any students present are looking for paper topics, Ignatius of Loyola’s leadership style and the way that he ran his network of Jesuits and their information reporting would each make for interesting subjects. See Father Norman O’Neal’s, S.J., The Life of St. Ignatius of Loyola as background and for a list of references.)

Now, as both a graduate of the University and as a veteran, I am proud to see that Scranton today is a VA Yellow Ribbon School and a G.I. Jobs Military Friendly School. According to retired Army LTC Joseph Wetherell, Associate Director of Admissions and a former Professor of Military Science here at the U., in AY2011-12 71 undergraduate and graduate Veteran students received Veterans Education Benefits at the University of Scranton, along with 29 dependent spouses and children. For the current 2012-2013 academic year, 76 such students have been certified to receive benefits as of mid-September, with the number expected to increase over this academic year. All the while the Royal Warrior Battalion continues to have a sterling reputation and serves as the second largest source of Army ROTC accessions from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

That’s the good news. The bad news for my fellow post-9/11 veterans is that, as retired Army Colonel James McDonough, Jr. recently reported, the unemployment rate for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans is 9.7 percent compared to 7.8 percent for the rest of the population. But more disturbingly, while only 7 percent of the total population are veterans, they account for nearly 20 percent of the suicides, according to some estimates.

While it is unlikely that any of us in this room can affect the unemployment issue in a serious way, each of us should do our part on the matter of suicide. “War is,” as General William Tecumseh Sherman put it, “cruelty.” Things happen that cannot be un-seen, un-smelled, or un-experienced. People shouldn’t bottle it up or alternatively seek to literally bottle it down. You are lucky to have access to the collective service and experience of all the individuals in this room. I would implore each of you to tap into this network, especially if you know anyone who may need assistance.

The second picture on the slide is, of course, of “The Three Soldiers” statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. We post-9/11 veterans should be particularly grateful to our predecessors who served in Vietnam—people like Bob Zelno from the class of 1966 or former Scranton Mayor, and part-time instructor here, David Wenzel. The sacrifices and the treatment many of those veterans received by their fellow citizens upon return from the rivers, jungles, and highlands of Southeast Asia have thankfully taught most of the public to separate their feelings towards service members from their personal politics.

Of course some argue that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far to the opposite extreme. Writing in the New York Times last week Aaron O’Connell, an historian at the U.S. Naval Academy and a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, warned of the permanent militarization of America where so few have served that the military and veterans are overly venerated, and where military pay and benefits have reached “third rail” status in American politics alongside programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

While there are some in the room that may not like this characterization, it does need to be considered seriously and not be dismissively cast aside. The outcome of the election this week ensures that defense spending will be going down—perhaps much more rapidly than many had hoped for if sequestration kicks in. A lot of tough choices will be made in the years to come and there will be no silver bullets to solve them. I’d be happy to discuss this further in the question and answer period.

To conclude, I will offer some unsolicited advice to the future leaders in the room.

First, remember that loyalty is a two-way street even though sometimes it is only seen as being unidirectional up the chain of command. “Mission first, people always” rightly places the priorities for leaders, but without your people it is difficult to accomplish the mission. As leaders it is important to take care of your Soldiers and they will take care of you.

Second, do not ignore the importance of persistence and perseverance. The highlight of my otherwise unremarkable service in uniform was serving on an 11-man Military Transition Team with an Iraqi light infantry battalion in and around Tal`Afar in 2006-2007. We were there both before and during the beginning of the Surge. Our team was a composite of reservists and active duty soldiers and, in the main, we were not trained in advance for our particular mission. There were no formal selection procedures and the pre-deployment training largely centered on individual tasks. It was a tough time to be in Iraq. The point of this observation is not to feel sorry for myself or to seek pity, but rather to point out that you will sometimes be dealt a bad hand. As leaders and followers, unlike in cards, however, folding generally is not an option. Persistence and perseverance can sometimes help you to adapt and innovate to make bad situations better.

Last and most importantly, is the value of humility. There is a wonderful scene at the end of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King where Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry return to Hobbiton after the War of the Ring. Surrounded by their fellow citizens, who are largely unaware of, or who had forgotten about, the sacrifices made on their behalf, the four seated at the pub hoist ale and give one another a knowing glance. There are no speeches, no bluster. They each know what the others have done and are proud of their service but don’t feel the need to boast.

Thank you for having me here today. It has been an honor and privilege to address my fellow veterans and future Army leaders.