Wednesday, June 14, 2006

My Flag Day Ceremony Speech

I was invited by the Elk's Lodge in Blairsville, PA to be the guest speaker at their Flag Day ceremony in the Blairsville Cemetary Veteran's circle. Below is the complete text of my speech. (You may want to go pee and get a coke first, it's a bit lengthy, but you shouldn't need any screen cleaner.)


First I want to thank all of you for having me out here today. It is my pleasure and my honor to be here, and I’d like to spend just a few minutes talking about the history of Flag Day.

The Fourth of July was traditionally celebrated as America’s birthday, but the idea of an annual day specifically celebrating our national flag is believed to have its origins in 1885. BJ Cigrand, a school teacher, arranged for the pupils of his Fredonia, Wisconsin Public School to observe June 14th– which was the 108th anniversary of the official adoption of the Stars and Stripes as our nation’s banner– as “Flag Birthday.”

Four years later, on June 14th, 1889, George Balch, a kindergarten teacher in New York City, planned appropriate ceremonies for the children of his school, and his idea of observing Flag Day was later adopted by the State Board of Education of New York.

On June 14, 1891, the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia held a Flag Day celebration, and on June 14th of the following year, the New York Society of the Sons of the Revolution celebrated Flag Day.

In April of 1893 Colonel J. Granville Leach– from the Pennsylvania Society of the Sons of the Revolution– convinced the Pennsylvania Society of Colonial Dames of America to adopt a resolution requesting the mayor of Philadelphia and all others in authority and all private citizens to display the Flag on June 14th.

Leach went on to recommend that thereafter the day be known as ‘Flag Day,’ and on that day, the school children be assembled for appropriate exercises, with each child being given a small flag.

The Pennsylvania Sons of the Revolution followed suit with a resolution of their own two weeks later, and as a result, Dr. Edward Brooks, Superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools at the time, directed that Flag Day exercises be held on June 14th in Independence Square. School children were assembled, each carrying a small flag, and patriotic songs were sung and addresses delivered.

1894 saw the organization of the American Flag Day Association in Illinois. The group’s purpose was to promote the holding of Flag Day exercises in our nation. Later that year, the first general public school children’s celebration of Flag Day in Chicago was held in Douglas, Garfield, Humboldt, Lincoln, and Washington Parks, with more than 300,000 children participating.

That same year New York Governor David B. Hill directed that on June 14th the national flag be displayed on all public buildings. The movement now had legs and what followed was nearly three decades of local and state Flag Day celebrations.

Inspired by these state and local acts of patriotism, President Woodrow Wilson on May 30th, 1916, signed a proclamation officially establishing June 14th— the anniversary of the 1777 resolution which adopted the Stars and Stripes— as Flag Day.

While Flag Day was celebrated in various communities for years after Wilson’s proclamation, it was not until August 3rd, 1949, that President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating June 14th of each year as National Flag Day.

And that, as they say, is the history of Flag Day. There will be a quiz on Tuesday. Seriously, it’s a good story. First, it’s a good story because it all started with an idea from a teacher. I believe that when teachers talk, everybody should listen... and take notes, because like I said, there’s going to be a quiz.

Really, it’s a good story because it showcases the best of the American system of government. Somebody has a good idea. They talk to their friends and neighbors, they organize, and the idea begins to grow and get legs, and turns into a movement. And eventually that small little idea becomes a part of our laws. A part of our nation. A part of us.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is representative democracy. That is government of the people, and by the people. That is what this country and this flag are all about. That is why we are fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve removed petty despot dictators from power, and, because we believe so strongly in freedom and democracy, we stayed on, helping the citizens of those nations develop their own representative governments.

We didn’t do it for oil. We didn’t do it for a love of aggression or because we want to establish colonies. We stayed because we wanted to share democracy with a people who have been repressed by cruel and oppressive dictators for the last two millennia. We needed to not only help them repair and establish infrastructure, but secure their country from the threat of terrorists who wish to reestablish totalitarian caliphates, and we need to literally teach them basic civics from the township level all the way to their federal government.

Sure, we could’ve deposed the Taliban and Saddam regimes, and immediately withdrew from the Middle East as some have suggested. We’d have left a power vacuum that would’ve easily been filled by whoever had the ability to terrorize the populace into submission.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve seen, like many of my brothers who’ve gone before me and those who are represented here today by these flags—I’ve seen the horror of war. I’ve experienced first hand horrible injury and disfigurement. I’ve visited with many of my brothers and sisters who’ve suffered even more than I, who lie in military hospital beds and wait for their wounds to heal, for infections to subside, for prosthetics to be made and fitted. Almost to a man, the question foremost in their mind is “When can I go back?” They understand that there is a job to do. A mission with a true purpose and a noble cause. A cause so important that a man who’s lost both arms and a leg does not wallow in self pity, but focuses on returning to his unit, to his adopted family, and even to the throngs of smiling and waving children whose greatest gift is a pad of paper and a pen, handed out by a soldier on a patrol. The personal courage of our nation’s veterans never ceases to inspire and amaze me. While I was lying in my bed at Walter Reed, only a few weeks after being wounded, a man I recognized walked past my room. He was another captain that I had served with earlier in my career. I noticed something very different about him—he was missing both feet. He’d lost his right leg in OIF 1, the invasion of Iraq, and then, a year and a half later, lost his other leg during OIF 3, the rebuilding of Iraq. He walked on prosthetic legs, and was at the hospital to receive his second purple heart, and was then returning to his unit to continue a train up for yet another tour.

These stories may seem out of place on a day designated to honor our flag, but without those who stand beneath it, our flag is but a piece of cloth, no different than the sheets on our bed.

I am reminded of what Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, said in a Flag Day speech delivered in 1914. Secretary Lane said when he looked upon our nation’s flag it seemed to whisper to him and say:

“I am what you make me; nothing more. I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself.”

When I look upon old glory,

I SEE ONE FLAG which reminds me of the power and beauty of unity. "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

I SEE TWO SECTIONS -- the union and the field -- which remind me of diversity in unity.

I SEE THREE COLORS. Red reminds me of hardiness and courage; White is for purity and innocence. Blue is for vigilance, perseverance and justice.

I SEE FOUR CORNERS that remind me that our nation was built by people who came from the four corners of the earth.

I SEE FIVE POINTS ON THE STARS that remind me of the importance of every state. President Lincoln refused to remove the stars from for southern states during the War Between the States.

Shel Silverstein, a children’s poet, wrote in Where the Sidewalk Ends: "There is a star for Alaska... One star is for Nebraska… One star is North Dakota… One star is Minnesota… There are lots of other stars, but I forget which ones they are."

I SEE SIX WHITE & SEVEN RED STRIPES that remind me of the great heritage we have. The flag that flew over Fort McHenry had 15 stars and 15 stripes. Originally, a new star and a new stripe were added for each new state. Then it was decided to go back to the original 13 stripes and add a new star for each new state. Some things change – Alaska and Hawaii were added in 1960-61; but some things never change.

If the time ever comes when we can look at the American Flag and not feel or remember or see anything, then it may be said of us: "We were not worth saving" and all of these men and women who suffered and died, have done so in vain.

Francis Scott Key asked a question that needs an answer from all of us: "Can you see...?"

Oh, say! can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming;
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there:
Oh, say! Does that Star - Spangled Banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

When we look at the flag, may we always to be able to see, to feel, to remember and to always be grateful for the men and women, who served, suffered and died to keep us free.

I am so privileged to serve under the banner of my nation. I am so proud to live in a country where people like reverend Phelps, the misguided cleric from Topeka, Kansas, has a right to desecrate the flag, protest military funerals, and protest outside VA hospitals, to rail against all that I hold dear. I am honored to be the defender and protector of his rights, for he and his ilk are miserable creatures who are only kept free through the exertions, sacrifice, and blood of others. I am saddened by his twisted and misguided rhetoric. I am honored to stand with my brothers, and in the ranks of those who’ve gone before me for the last two hundred and thirty years, who humbly serve our nation, knowing that our only guaranteed right for doing so is a flag draped casket.

In America it is illegal to burn trash, but we can burn the flag. It is illegal to remove a label from a mattress, but we can literally rip the stars and stripes right off of our flag. It is illegal to damage a mailbox, but we can destroy our flag. A people that does not honor and respect their flag is a people that does not honor and respect their country nor their neighbor. Today is Flag Day. I say if we want to make a political statement, we can burn our bras, burn our BVDs, but we should leave Old Glory alone. Every day should be Flag Day.

But what is the flag? I agree with former Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane who thought that if the flag could talk, it would say:

'I am whatever you make me, nothing more.'

'I am your belief in yourself, your dream of what a people may become.'

'I live a changing life, a life of moods and passions, of heartbreaks and tired muscles.'

'Sometimes I am strong with pride, when people do an honest work, fitting the rails together truly.'

'Sometimes I droop, for then purpose has gone from me, and cynically I play the coward.'

'Sometimes I am loud, garish and full of ego that blasts judgment.'

'But always, I am all that you hope to be, and have the courage to try for.'

'I am song and fear, struggle and panic, and ennobling hope.'

'I am the day's work of the weakest man and the largest dream of the most daring.'

'I am the Constitution and the courts, statutes and state-maker, soldier and dreadnaught, cook, counselor and clerk.'

'I am the battle of yesterday and the mistake of tomorrow.'

'I am the mystery of the men who do without knowing why.'

'I am the clutch of an idea and the reasoned purpose of resolution.'

'I am no more than what you believe me to be and I am all that you believe I can be.'

'I am what you make me; nothing more.'

'I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself, the pictured suggestion of that big thing which makes this nation. My stars and my stripes are your dreams and your labors. They are bright with cheer, brilliant with courage, firm with faith, because you have made them so out of your hearts; for you are the makers of the Flag, and it is well that you glory in the making.'

Thank you, and may God bless the United States of America.

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