- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Matt Reres of Chantilly was asked to give a speech to an Honor Flight of World War II veterans from Colorado and Ohio flown in to see the National World War II Memorial on the Mall.

He retired from the U.S. Army Reserve in 1999 as a colonel and in 2007 as a senior executive from the Office of the Army General Counsel at the Pentagon after 39 years of federal service.

He has a long association with the military - his father and two brothers served in combat during World War II, and his daughter and son-in-law both served on active duty with the Army for four years.

He writes, “I love the Army, the other services and those who serve in uniform. I particularly feel a great debt to those WWII veterans. But for them, I believe there would be small likelihood that we would enjoy the freedom of the press today, or any of our other great freedoms.”

* * *

“You are my hero. God bless you.”

Today I am able to say these words to you because I am an American citizen guaranteed the right of free speech by our Revolutionary forebears of more than 200 years ago. Every American enjoys this freedom today, as well as many other freedoms - the freedoms of religion, expression, assembly and all our other constitutional blessings set forth in our Bill of Rights. But each of these blessings has come to us at a great price. I doubt whether I could stand here this evening as a free man and speak these words, invoking God’s blessings on you, but for your service and sacrifice made more than 60 years ago. Then, the winds of tyranny and oppression raged round the world, intent on forever extinguishing the flame of freedom.

No one questions that World War II was the single most significant event of our age. No event compares in its magnitude and importance. Civilization stood trembling at the brink of the dark ages. No event so dramatically changed the course of history and the survival of civilization as did World War II. Without the service and sacrifices you and others from the World War II generation made, none of us would enjoy the freedoms and opportunities we have in America today.

The World War II Memorial, which you visited this morning, honors your generation, a generation of Americans who, at a critical moment in world history, united in defense of freedom and democracy. The memorial honors the 16 million Americans who served in uniform, the more than 400,000 Americans who died while in that service, and the millions who supported the war effort at home. The memorial commemorates the participation and unity of all Americans in that war. The memorial is a lasting tribute to the spirit of the American people to the common defense of our nation and to the cause of peace and freedom throughout the world.

More than 40 years after your triumphant return to America, legislation was introduced in 1987 by Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (Ohio Democrat) after Roger Durbin, a World War II veteran, suggested the idea for a memorial. Six years later, President Clinton signed Public Law 103-32 on May 25, 1993, authorizing the American Battle Monuments Commission to establish a Memorial in Washington, D.C. Yes, six years later. The wheels of Washington often do grind slowly.

The memorial rests on a seven-acre site on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Many voices spoke before the final site for the memorial was selected - the National Capital Planning Commission, the Commission of Fine Arts and the Secretary of the Interior, among many, many others. But all agreed that the Rainbow Pool site between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial was the most appropriate place to recognize the triumph of democracy over tyranny. And no more fitting place exists than between these two physical reminders of our two greatest presidents, one who led us through our first revolution to become a nation and the other who led us through our second revolution to unite us forever as one nation.

President Clinton dedicated the site on Veterans Day in 1995, and he participated in the ceremonial groundbreaking on Veterans Day in 2000. Five years had elapsed between the dedication of the site and the ceremonial groundbreaking - yes, five years later - a period longer than it took the World War II generation to win the war!

During this long process between thought and act, many hands and heads were at work. A national design competition for the memorial drew 400 submissions. Friedrich St. Florian, an architect from Providence, R.I., prevailed, following approval by the American Battle Monuments Commission and further approvals by the secretary of the interior, National Park Service, the Commission of Fine Arts, and the National Capital Planning Commission. Their work required individual plans and approvals for the “design concept” in 1998, the “preliminary design” in 1999, the “final architectural design” and ancillary elements, such as access roads, information pavilion, contemplative area and comfort station, in 2000. Granite and marble selections, sculpture elements and inscriptions followed in 2002 and 2003.

More planning went into the memorial than for the invasion at Normandy. Although it was often a long and contentious route that led to the final construction of the memorial, every person involved was prompted by the earnest desire to ensure that the memorial would forever stand the test of time. And it shall.

The memorial is physically magnificent. Within the two imposing granite pavilions at the north and south entrances, bronze eagles grasp laurels memorializing the victory of the World War II generation. Fifty-six stone pillars embrace a lowered plaza surrounding the Rainbow Pool and represent the then-48 states, seven territories and District of Columbia that comprised the United States during World War II. Collectively, the 56 pillars represent the unity and strength of the nation. Waterfalls flank the Freedom Wall, and fountains at the base of the pavilions complement the Rainbow Pool.

The ceremonial entrance to the memorial is flanked by two American flags. The sculpted flagpole bases contain the service seals of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Army Air Forces, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine. Inscriptions and bronze sculpture panels depicting battlefront and home-front scenes identify the sacrifices and service of the World War II generation. A field of 4,000 gold stars on the Freedom Wall honors the more than 400,000 Americans who sacrificed their lives - 318,000 from the Army, with 88,000 of that number from the Army Air Forces; 62,000 from the Navy; 24,000 from the Marine Corps; 2,000 from the Coast Guard; and 10,000 from the Merchant Marine. Four hundred thousand gallant Americans!

As you know, I hail from the great city of Omaha, Nebraska. If 400,000 of her citizens were killed today, Omaha would lose every single person living there.

Although the home front is well-recognized and honored by the memorial, the focus of the memorial is on you, the citizen warrior, for you are the ones who bore the horrors of battle and triumphed by force of arms over the armies of darkness. You were the warriors who hurled back the hordes who threatened to extinguish the lamp of freedom. Winston Churchill appropriately said of you and all citizen warriors: “They are twice the citizen.”

As Tom Hanks’ public service ads stated in the late ‘90s, “It’s time to say thank you.” Coupled with Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation” and Steven Spielberg’s film “Saving Private Ryan,” the immediate response from Americans prompted construction of the memorial, which began in September 2001. The funding of the construction and the maintenance of the memorial in perpetuity came entirely from American citizens, businesses, corporations, foundations, schools and veterans organizations. On May 29, 2004, President George W. Bush dedicated the memorial.

On that historic day, my wife and I were blessed to be present. We accompanied our son-in-law’s father, Joe, and his grandfather, Carmine Festa. Carmine, a twice-wounded World War II veteran, served in the European Theater. Carmine’s second wound caused his hospitalization for almost a year, with even a longer convalescence. Today, Carmine still suffers from his ancient wounds.

Carmine’s service inspired Joe to join the Marine Corps and serve in Vietnam. Two of Joe’s sons, one of them our son-in-law, Matthew, served on active duty as Army officers. My own father, who served in World War II as a Navy Seabee, was unable to attend the dedication - by 2004 he was lost forever in the fogs of dementia. Matthew and our daughter, Elizabeth, were also unable to attend, as both were Army officers at that time, serving with the 101st Airborne Division.

Carmine’s service and that of my father have inspired two generations to serve America as you so proudly did.

Last week, I spoke to a high school friend who lives in Omaha. I told him I would be speaking to you this evening. He asked that I convey his gratitude to you for your service, as did everyone else who knew of my visit with you this evening. My friend commented that although he hopes to visit the memorial one day, his declining health may prevent him from ever visiting.

I thought of his comments for several days after we spoke, and then I called him back. I told him that the memorial is simply a permanent reminder for future generations of the service and sacrifices you made to preserve freedom and liberty. But then I told him that even if no physical memorial ever existed in America’s capital, the true memorial of America’s greatest generation could still be seen every day.

I told him your memorial is witnessed each time a national or local election is held; each time a criminal law judge rules against a mistaken position of our government; each time a priest, minister or rabbi prays with a congregation; each morning Old Glory is raised before a school, a courthouse or a citizen’s home; each time our national anthem is sung before any sports or entertainment event; each time “Taps” is played at the funeral of one of our World War II vets who joins countless fallen comrades from that distant war. Yes, these are but a few examples of your true memorial.

So believe it, dear friend, each time someone stops to tell you from his heart: “You are my hero. God bless you.”

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