Mrs. Stonesifer—no one could more eloquently, more persuasively, or more meaningfully explain what today is about and why we are all here, than you just did.
I am reminded that during the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19, 1863, a well-known orator of the time, Edward Everett, spoke for two hours. His speech was well-received at the time, and the man who followed him to the podium, Abraham Lincoln, was worried that his brief remarks—about 270 words—would not measure up. In fact, as President Lincoln rode the train back to Washington, he considered his Gettysburg Address a failure.
A few days later, the President received a letter from Edward Everett, which stated,
“I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."
The rest, we know, is history.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I promise I will not speak for two hours. I am following a masterfully eloquent speech that has captured the central idea of this occasion in its brilliance, its passion, and in parental love.
Ruth Stonesifer and I first met in late October 2001, during a phone call no parent wants to take, and I, as Army Chief of Staff, did not ever wish to make. I tried to call as many families, as I could, of Soldiers lost during my tenure as Chief; to try to express the inexpressible; to try to assuage the un-bearable; and to say ‘Thank you’, when no measure of gratitude could ever fill the void left by the death of a child given in service to the Nation.
At a time of a parent’s deepest grief, when my call was an intrusion in their anguish, mothers and fathers, like Ruth Stonesifer, shared their hearts with me; helped me through my own sorrow; and made me even prouder of their children. Ultimately, it was I, who was consoled in those calls. I don’t know what would have happened if that first phone call had not gone well, but Ruth Stonesifer was so strong, so generous, and so comforting that I went on to reach out to as many families of the fallen as I could.
A few minutes ago, Ruth Stonesifer said, “Somewhere in our healing process, many of us experience moments of panic that our sons and daughters will be forgotten.” Faced with similar concerns early in the last century, Grace Darling Seibold was spurred to action, after her son, First Lieutenant George V. Seibold, died in aerial combat over France during World War I. She was determined to preserve her son’s memory, and the memories of all of America’s sons, and daughters, who die in service to their country.
Grace Seibold’s granddaughters, Teddy and Bambi, are here today. I’m sure they can testify to their grandmother’s perseverance and patriotism. It must have come naturally to her. You see, her family’s line of military service extended back to the Revolutionary War, and her father, Edward Washburn Whitaker, was a Medal of Honor recipient for heroism during the Civil War. He was buried here 87 years ago, in Section 3, not far from where we stand. We have not forgotten him; we have not forgotten Mrs. Seibold’s son, George; we have not forgotten Ruth Stonesifer’s son, Kris. We have not forgotten any of your children—not here at Arlington, nor at any of the 130 VA National Cemeteries for which I serve as steward.
In her acceptance speech as President of the American Gold Star Mothers, Ruth Stonesifer reached out to the mothers of sons killed in Vietnam. She said, “You quietly earned the respect that we, as Gold Star moms, now share by your countless unsung volunteer hours and positive attitudes. To quote Gandhi, you knew instinctively that, ‘the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others’.”
To all Gold Star Mothers, your sacrifice, your care and comfort for each other and for Veterans, and your honoring the legacy of freedom that your children have guaranteed to future generations of Americans, are wonderful examples of Gandhi’s counsel. The Gold Stars reflect your courage, your commitment, and your never-ending vigil in memory of your sons and daughters.
In 1998, Gold Star Mother, Theresa Davis, wrote a letter to her eldest son, Richard, a Green Beret with the 5th Special Forces Group, who had died thirty years earlier at age 19, in Vietnam. In her letter, she wrote of her new-found mission as a Gold Star Mother. I’d like to read just a portion of her letter to Richard:
“It’s been a long time, my son. I still miss you…. They gave you a Silver Star. Now they call me a Gold Star Mother. I spend a lot of time with the other Gold Star Mothers. Every Monday night, a group of us go to the homeless shelter for Vietnam vets. I know if it was you in that position, I would want someone to do the same. I guess that’s what moms do . . . We try to give them support—talk to them like a mother would talk to a son…. Dick, I’m sure wherever you are up there, you approve of what I’m doing….”
To all of our Gold Star Mothers—you have earned the Nation’s deep respect and admiration for what you do every day on behalf those you loved and lost . . . And for what they did for this Nation and for freedom-loving people around the world.
Your sons and daughters selflessly gave their last full measure of devotion to America. Their sacrifices live on in your giving hearts and your helping hands as America’s Gold Star Mothers.
On behalf of a grateful Nation, thank you, and May God bless you and your families. May God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours, and the men and women, who serve and have served her to keep us the land of the free and the home of the brave.