Veterans Day speaker: Politics, religion and war
WINDOM -- If you enjoy freedom of speech, thank a veteran. If you appreciate freedom of the press, thank a veteran. If you have taken advantage of your right to protest, thank a veteran.
In community celebrations across the country in recent days, people have paid honor and tribute to America's veterans. That was the case in Windom Monday, where keynote speaker and 1961 Windom High School graduate Jim Stephenson asked if the customary platitude of thanks is, indeed, enough.
"If we really want to demonstrate our appreciation for what our veterans and their families have done for us and continue to do for us, we ought to reflect on what we ... are doing to discharge our responsibilities to be good citizens of this great country," Stephenson said in an address that covered politics, religion and citizenship.
A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Stephenson went on to serve in tours of duty in Korea in 1966 and Vietnam in 1969. He said the men and women who have served our country vowed to uphold the U.S. Constitution and promised to go where they were ordered and do what was asked of them.
"Our armed forces have been doing exactly that since the beginning of our Republic," he said. "During the past decade, many of our soldiers have served multiple tours in conflicts that we determined -- even before they were over -- that we would not win in any conventional sense.
"In Vietnam, for example, nearly one-third of our casualties occurred in the four years after President Nixon announced that we would withdraw in 1969," he added. "During the recent election, both presidential candidates said they would have us withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, no conditions. It will be up to historians to argue over what we may have won."
Throughout history, politics and religion have played a great role in the nation's military,. While that likely won't change, Stephenson said, the actions people take in their daily lives can perhaps change the course for the future.
"We owe, especially to our armed forces, for our national policies to be as wise as we wish them to be, we need to be involved," Stephenson said. "Veterans have sacrificed their time, sometimes their health, sometimes their lives to keep America safe and preserve our way of life. Veterans' sacrifices are real ... and many have been made to preserve our way of life. But they aren't always necessary to keep America safe or to preserve our way of life. In some cases the sacrifices that have been made are in pursuit of misguided policies ... but that does not make those sacrifices any less meaningful."
Having served nearly a decade in the military, Stephenson said soldiers do not choose how or when, or for what purpose, their sacrifices will be made.
"Every soldier, sailor, air person or marine must be prepared to lose his or her life in pursuit of what our elected representatives decide they must do," he said. "Those decisions are influenced by politics and religion."
For instance, he said that during the Civil War, the First Minnesota Regiment was ordered to attack on July 2, 1863 on Cemetery Ridge during the Battle of Gettysburg. Of the 262 Minnesotans who charged, just 47 remained standing after reinforcements arrived.
"Gen. Hancock said later he knew they would lose heavily, but said he would do it if he had known every man would have been killed," Stephenson said. "Our Armed Forces have performed with similar gallantry whenever they have been called upon, and they're doing so as we're gathered here today."
Stephenson shared the story of Lincoln's second inaugural address, in which he reminded the American people that during the Civil War, "both sides read the same Bible and prayed to the same God and each invoked God's fate against the other, but the prayer of neither was answered fully."
"We have fought a number of wars in which each side thought God was on their side," he added. "A preacher remarked to President Lincoln that he hoped the Lord was on the Union side during the great Civil War. President Lincoln's response was that it was his prayer that he and the nation be on the Lord's side. There's a difference."
In closing, Stephenson said citizens need to get involved, stay involved and work hard to get along with those they disagree with.
"I believe this is the essence of community, and I think that's the most important thing we can do to show our appreciation and respect for our veterans," Stephenson said.
After his military discharge, Stephenson returned to the classroom, earning his juris doctorate from Harvard Law School in 1973. Now based in the Twin Cities, he continues his work as an attorney and serves on the board of directors of Attorneys' Liability Assurance Society, the Guthrie Theater Foundation and the Minnesota Medical Foundation.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.