Remarks delivered by Kim Olsen at the dedication, 11/27/10
Excerpted from a November 13, 2010 speech given by Lt. Gen. Kelly to the Semper Fi Society of St. Louis
Nine years ago four commercial aircraft took off from Boston, Newark, and Washington. Took off fully loaded with men, women and children—all innocent, and all soon to die. These aircraft were targeted at the World Trade Towers in New York, the Pentagon, and likely the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Three found their mark. No American alive old enough to remember will ever forget exactly where they were, exactly what they were doing, and exactly who they were with at the moment they watched the aircraft dive into the World Trade Towers on what was, until then, a beautiful morning in New York City. Within the hour 3,000 blameless human beings would be vaporized, incinerated, or crushed in the most agonizing ways imaginable. The most wretched among them—over 200—driven mad by heat, hopelessness, and utter desperation leapt to their deaths from 1,000 feet above Lower Manhattan. We soon learned hundreds more were murdered at the Pentagon, and in a Pennsylvania farmer’s field. Once the buildings had collapsed and the immensity of the attack began to register most of us had no idea of what to do, or where to turn. As a nation, we were scared like we had not been scared for generations. Parents hugged their children to gain as much as to give comfort. Strangers embraced in the streets stunned and crying on one another’s shoulders seeking solace, as much as to give it. Instantaneously, American patriotism soared, Americans sought refuge in family, and in country, remembering that strong men and women have always stepped forward to protect the nation when the need was dire.
There was, however, a small segment of America that made very different choices that day…actions the rest of America stood in awe of on 9/11 and every day since. The first were our firefighters and police, their ranks decimated that day as they ran towards—not away from—danger and certain death. They were doing what they’d sworn to do—“protect and serve”—and went to their graves having fulfilled their sacred oath. Then there was your Armed Forces, and I know I am a little biased in my opinion here, but the best of them are Marines. Most wearing the Eagle, Globe and Anchor joined the unbroken ranks of American heroes after that fateful day not for money, or promises of bonuses or travel to exotic liberty ports, but for one reason and one reason alone; because of the terrible assault on our way of life by men they knew must be killed and extremist ideology that must be destroyed. A plastic flag in their car window was not their response to the murderous assault on our country. No, their response was a commitment to protect the nation swearing an oath to their God to do so, to their deaths. When future generations ask why America is still free and the heyday of Al Qaeda and their terrorist allies was counted in years rather than in centuries, our hometown heroes—soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines—can say, “because of me and people like me who risked all to protect millions who will never know my name.”
As we sit here today, we should not lose sight of the fact that America is at risk in a way it has never been before. Our enemy fights for an ideology based on an irrational hatred of who we are. Make no mistake about that. We did not start this fight, and it will not end until the extremists understand that we as a people will never lose our faith or our courage. If they persist, these terrorists and extremists and the nations that provide them sanctuary, they must know they will continue to be tracked down and captured or killed. America’s civilian and military protectors both here at home and overseas have for nearly nine years fought this enemy to a standstill and have never for a second “wondered why.” They know, and are not afraid. Their struggle is your struggle. As a democracy—“We the People”—and that by definition is every one of us—sent them away from home and hearth to fight our enemies. We are all responsible.
Since this generation’s “day of infamy” the American military has handed our ruthless enemy defeat-after-defeat but it will go on for years, if not decades, before this curse has been eradicated. We have done this by unceasing pursuit day and night into whatever miserable lair Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies, might slither into to lay in wait for future opportunities to strike a blow at freedom. America’s warriors have never lost faith in their mission, or doubted the correctness of their cause. They face dangers everyday that their countrymen safe and comfortable this night cannot imagine. But this has always been the case in all the wars our military have been sent to fight. Not to build empires, or enslave peoples, but to free those held in the grip of tyrants while at the same time protecting our nation, its citizens, and our shared values. And think about this, the only territory we as a people have ever asked for from any nation we have fought alongside, or against, since our founding, the entire extent of our overseas empire, is a few hundred acres of land for the 24 American cemeteries scattered around the globe. It is in these cemeteries where 220,000 of our sons and daughters rest in glory for eternity, or are memorialized forever because their earthly remains are lost forever in the deepest depths of the oceans, or never recovered from far flung and nameless battlefields. As a people, we can be proud because billions across the planet today live free, and billions yet unborn will also enjoy the same freedom and a chance at prosperity because America sent its sons and daughters out to fight and die for them, as much as for us.
We are at war and like it or not, that is a fact. It is not Bush’s war, and it is not Obama’s war, it is our war and we can’t run away from it. Even if we wanted to surrender, there is no one to surrender to. Our enemy is savage, offers absolutely no quarter, and has a single focus and that is either kill every one of us here at home, or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that decent men and women could ever grasp. Salt Lake City is as much at risk as is New York and Washington, D.C... Given the opportunity to do another 9/11, our merciless enemy would do it today, tomorrow, and every day thereafter. If, and most in the know predict that it is only a matter of time, he acquires nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, these extremists will use these weapons of mass murder against us without a moment’s hesitation. These butchers we fight killed more than 3,000 innocents on 9/11. As horrible as that death toll was, consider for a moment that the monsters that organized those strikes against New York and Washington, D.C. killed only 3,000 not because that was enough to make their sick and demented point, but because he couldn’t figure out how to kill 30,000, or 300,000, or 30 million of us that terrible day. I don’t know why they hate us, and I don’t care. We have a saying in the Marine Corps and that is “no better friend, no worse enemy, than a U.S. Marine.” We always hope for the first, friendship, but are certainly more than ready for the second. If its death they want, its death they will get, and the Marines will continue showing them the way.
Because our America hasn’t been successfully attacked since 9/11 many forget because we want to forget…to move on. As Americans we all dream and hope for peace, but we must be realistic and acknowledge that hope is never an option or course of action when the stakes are so high. Others are less realistic or less committed, or are working their own agendas, and look for ways to blame past presidents or in some other way to rationalize a way out of this war. The problem is our enemy is not willing to let us go. Regardless of how much we wish this nightmare would go away, our enemy will stay forever on the offensive until he hurts us so badly we surrender, or we kill him first. To him, this is not about our friendship with Israel, or about territory, resources, jobs, or economic opportunity in the Middle East. No, it is about us as a people. About our freedom to worship any God we please in any way we want. It is about the worth of every man, and the worth of every woman, and their equality in the eyes of God and the law; of how we live our lives with our families, inside the privacy of our own homes. It’s about the God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable right.” As Americans we hold these truths to be self-evident. He doesn’t. Our positions can never be reconciled. He cannot be deterred…only defeated. Compromise is out of the question.
It is a fact that our country today is in a life and death struggle against an evil enemy, but America as a whole is certainly not at war. Not as a country. Not as a people. Today, only a tiny fraction—less than a percent—shoulder the burden of fear and sacrifice, and they shoulder it for the rest of us. Their sons and daughters who serve are men and women of character who continue to believe in this country enough to put life and limb on the line without qualification, and without thought of personal gain, and they serve so that the sons and daughters of the other 99% don’t have to.
The comforting news for every American is that our men and women in uniform, and every Marine, is as good today as any in our history. As good as what their heroic, under-appreciated, and largely abandoned fathers and uncles were in Vietnam, and their grandfathers were in Korea and World War II. They have the same steel in their backs and have made their own mark etching forever places like Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baghdad, Iraq, and Helmand and Sagin, Afghanistan that are now part of the legend and stand just as proudly alongside Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Inchon, Hue City, Khe Sanh, and Ashau Valley, Vietnam. None of them have every asked what their country could do for them, but always and with their lives asked what they could do for America. While some might think we have produced yet another generation of materialistic, consumeristic and self-absorbed young people, those who serve today have broken the mold and stepped out as real men, and real women, who are already making their own way in life while protecting ours.
We can also take comfort in the fact that these young Americans are not born killers, but are good and decent young men and women who for going on ten years have performed remarkable acts of bravery and selflessness to a cause they have decided is bigger and more important than themselves. Only a few months ago they were delivering your paper, stocking shelves in the local grocery store, worshiping in church on Sunday. They are also the same kids that drove their cars too fast for your liking, and played the awful music of their generation too loud, but have no doubt they are the finest of their generation. Like those who went before them in uniform, we owe them everything. We owe them our safety. We owe them our prosperity. We owe them our freedom. We owe them our lives. Any one of them could have done something more self-serving with their lives as the vast majority of their age group elected to do after high school and college, but no, they chose to serve knowing full well a brutal war was in their future. They did not avoid the basic and cherished responsibility of a citizen—the defense of country—they welcomed it. They are the very best this country produces, and have put every one of us ahead of themselves. All are heroes for simply stepping forward, and we as a people owe a debt we can never fully pay. Their legacy will be of selfless valor, the country we live in, the way we live our lives, and the freedoms the rest of their countrymen take for granted.Over 5,000 have died thus far in this war. Too many have been lost and a knock on the door brought their families to their knees in a grief that will never-ever go away. Thousands more have suffered wounds since it all started, but like anyone who loses life or limb while serving others, they knew what they were about, and were doing what they wanted to do. Those with less of a sense of service to the nation never understand it when men and women of character step forward to look danger and adversity straight in the eye, refusing to blink, or give ground, even to their own deaths. The protected can’t begin to understand the price paid so they and their families can sleep safe and free at night. These fallen are not victims, but are warriors, your warriors, and warriors are never victims regardless of how and where they fall. Death, or fear of death, has no power over them. Their paths are paved by sacrifice, sacrifices they gladly make…for you. They prove themselves everyday on the field of battle…for you. They fight in every corner of the globe…for you. They live to fight…for you, and they never rest because there is always another battle to be won in the defense of America.Marines believe that God gave America the greatest gift he could bestow to man while he lived on this earth—freedom. We also believe he gave us another gift nearly as precious—our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines—to safeguard that gift and guarantee no force on this earth can every steal it away. Rest assured our America, this experiment in democracy started over two centuries ago, will forever remain the “land of the free and home of the brave” so long as we never run out of tough young Americans who are willing to look beyond their own self-interest and comfortable lives, and go into the darkest and most dangerous places on earth to hunt down, and kill, those who would do us harm. God Bless America, and….SEMPER FIDELIS!