Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day Reflections



Growing up, my role models were those who served to protect and defend the United States of America with honor, duty, and compassion. On this Memorial Day 2009, I’m reminded of five men who risked or gave their lives and well being to preserve our freedoms.

Edmund Bowen (above right), my grandfather, was a World War I Army Veteran. He was blown out of fox hole and lost considerable hearing as a result. He was also the only member of his battalion to survive the blast. Most of this war involved hand to hand combat. He spent the remainder of his long life coming to terms with those horrors. In addition, he became an inaugural member of NJ’s State Police Force where happenstance allowed him to meet my grandmother. Throughout his life he served and assisted those less fortunate.

Joseph Salvest, my Godfather, served the Army with distinction in World War II’s Pacific Theatre where resulting injuries precluded his ability to have children with his wife, my great Aunt Myrt. They married during a long weekend furlough between two year long calls. He became postmaster general of the second largest, per volume, postal center in the country. As its board member, he established National Credit Union Member accrediting standards exceeding FDIC requirements.

Ted Monica, my head high school football coach, is a Marine Veteran who received a Purple Heart in the Korean War. A bullet lodged in his spinal column, ultimately causing great pain in his back and legs. In his twenty five years as a coach, he never discussed his military service yet led exceptional teams to record victories. His legacy is the selfless teamwork and coaching skills he modeled and fostered amongst his players. He helped his players accomplish things they never thought possible.

Fred Lippitt, my former neighbor and friend, received two Purple Hearts; one for his service in World War II and one for his service in Korea. He shared with me the bullet a nurse place wrapped in his hand following his surgery near a World War II battle front. This injury rendered him unable to have children, so he dedicated his life, and considerable good fortune, to elevating those less fortunate. He was a public servant, philanthropist, leader, and friend to all.

Dave Laychack
, my Brown fraternity brother, lost his life on 9/11/2001 when an aircraft commandeered by terrorists smashed into the Pentagon. Dave’s office was located on the building’s perimeter wall. It took searchers three months to find his remains. Dave left a wife and two children. I’m guessing they were in his thoughts as he gazed from his office that morning.

The freedom to choose to attend a university, and then to work as a civilian for the department of defense, was afforded Dave by sacrifices made by men like Fred, Ted, Joe, and Ed. As undergraduates, it was appropriate, albeit ironic, for Dave to think quickly to avoid violence as he broke into patriotic song and lead us in a singing protest against students petitioning the Solomon Amendment.

This amendment conditioned eligibility for Federal financial aid for higher education and job training, Federal government employment, and other Federal benefits with an individual’s registering with the Selective Service System or certifying he or she was not required to do so.

Most members of my fraternity came from middle class families with military histories and were happy to register with the Selective Service System. Many of us were recruited by, and considered attending, United States Service Academies.

One fraternity brother, Bobby, questioned the petitioners by quipping: “let me get this straight, your petition basically states you want the United States, and our tax dollars, to support you financially while attending Brown, and as “thanks” you say “screw you, I’m not willing to sacrifice for you”, is that it?“

Following Bobby’s question, the small room filled with forty fraternity members and the two petitioners became hostile. At the time, our fraternity had no housing privileges. We were walking on egg shells to comply with the university’s good behavior expectations to qualify to return to campus housing. A violent outburst against these visitors would ruin the chance to get housing, yet seemed inevitable until Dave’s quick response and stirring rendition of “God Bless America”. Our voices, not our fists, blasted these petitioners from the room. We ultimately secured campus housing.

Dave, Steve Brown, and Dan Nelson were seniors. They were graduating and were in no position to benefit from us being granted housing, but they supported us through their senior year, especially Dave. His dedication and loyalty was exemplary.

Dave had a quick wit and a great sense of duty. We were not surprised to learn he dedicated his work life to the Pentagon. A few weeks ago, my family toured this facility. We visited Washington to see the memorials. We also arranged Capitol Building and Pentagon tours via our congressman.

We learned the Pentagon has 17.5 miles of corridors. If placed on its side, it would be taller than the Empire State Building. It’s the largest functioning office building in the world with 23,000 employees.

Dave’s area was under construction the morning of the attacks. If this area was occupied to capacity, at least 6,000 – 10,000 people would have perished. One hundred and twenty five (125) employees and contractors died while working at the site. An additional fifty nine (59) hostages aboard Flight 77 died on impact bringing the casualty total to 184. Although horrific, it could have been much worse.

Some engineers speculate had it not been for the steel girders, in place to support renovations, the plane may have destroyed the entire building. I believe Dave blocked the plane’s potential destruction. In the memorial garden, of the 184 benches, Dave’s sits closest to the building, signifying his proximity to impact.

The contractors tasked to reconstruct the building committed to finishing the project within a year of the attack. They charged no overtime, yet worked around the clock to accomplish this goal. They considered this considerable sacrifice their contribution to society. They succeeded.

I am humbled and deeply patriotic thanks to the behaviors and selfless sacrifice my role models demonstrated. This devotion to the United States was shared by most of my hometown friends, but I had to search for it at Brown. Not many of the faculty or students embraced the fundamental truths dictated by the constitution and defended by my role models. Instead, I saw people manipulate these protected rights for selfish reasons - social and economic advancement.

I do not see our candidates for higher office or Supreme Court appointments demonstrating their sacrifices as often as I hear them using political correctness for personal promotion or to browbeat others from challenging their perspectives.

Granted, not everyone feels their protected class, affinity, or family was treated, historically, with the same equality as my role models. The two Brown petitioners may have been fighting the Solomon Amendment because they felt it penalized gays.

During the tour, another interesting fact was shared about the Pentagon. The building has twice the number of bathrooms and water fountains required by code. When it was built in 1943, a mere 66 years ago, separate facilities were required for different races.

The system Jefferson and his cohorts penned, the system my role models defended, can correct and adjust itself with incredible speed. To date, it can be argued, it’s the greatest governing system ever created.