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Veterans Day Tribute by Michael Breen ’11—November 11, 2009

Yale Law School student and military veteran Michael F. Breen ’11 offered the following remarks of remembrance at Yale University’s Veterans Day ceremony on November 11, 2009, on Beinecke Plaza. Breen, a former Army captain, is among more than 30 student veterans or active duty military at Yale.

Vice President Lorimer, fellow veterans, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here today. We are here to honor the service and sacrifice of the men and women of the Armed Forces of the United States. It is deeply heartening to me that each one of you has chosen to take the time to be here, and to remember those who have stood between their loved home and the war’s desolation. I’d like to extend a special thank you on behalf of Yale’s student veterans to Vice President Lorimer, for her unwavering commitment to recognizing military service on this campus, and to Lauralee Field, whose dedication has made this ceremony possible year after year.

For most of us, Veterans Day is a day to give thanks. For those who have served, it is also a day to remember. Like many veterans, I greet this day with a complex mixture of pride and anxiety, and not just because I’m up here speaking with all of you. There is a special pride I think most veterans take in our military service, in part because our experiences set us apart – and yet we know how difficult it can be to come home again once you’ve been to war, to explain to our friends and loved ones what our experience was like, what it truly means. It takes a kind of high courage to speak honestly about these things, as I think Jonathan McMaster has just shown us all.

Today, we honor those who have lived their hour on guard or their day on the battlefield, and come safe home. Few in our society today have seen the face of war. Less than one percent of eligible Americans have served or are serving in our current wars. In many ways, this is the greatest of blessings. But it means that our relatively few veterans form our society’s only living memory of the costs and realities of war. I believe we few have a sacred responsibility to share that knowledge with our neighbors, especially on days like today.

Today, veterans remember the men and women we served alongside. We remember their countless, selfless acts of courage, so matter of fact they began to feel almost commonplace. I remember a squad leader tackling a dazed private in Afghanistan, sheltering the young man with his body to shield him from the flying wreckage of a crashing helicopter. I remember a young medic dashing into mortar fire in Iraq without his body armor, just because one of his buddies might be injured. I remember a soldier giving his two weeks of leave to a friend who was having a rough time, volunteering to spend his holiday in Afghanistan instead of with his family in Ohio.

We remember those who did not return. Veterans Day is a day to celebrate all who have served, Memorial Day is set aside for the fallen, and yet military service and the ultimate sacrifice are impossible to consider apart from one another. So we remember. We remember friends and loved ones who gave their lives with that flag above us sown on their sleeves. We who fought with them, who knew them at their best, have an enduring and unending duty to the fallen. We must ensure that their names and lives are not forgotten by the nation they died to defend.

We remember those who serve now. As we gather here in this peaceful courtyard, it is shortly before midnight in Afghanistan. The sun is setting in Iraq. At Fort Hood, where our brothers and sisters grieve for their departed comrades, the morning’s training is drawing to a close. Right now, an Army sergeant defends a combat outpost on an Afghan mountaintop, straining his ears into the night for enemy footsteps. Right now, a Navy submariner is enduring another month without sunlight, on patrol beneath the ocean. Right now, an Air Force pilot is hurtling through the night sky, trying to refuel her jet in midair through night vision goggles. Right now, a Marine is sitting down to break bread with an Iraqi tribal elder. All of them are volunteers.

What drives men and women to volunteer for such a life? In some ways, the answer is different for everyone. Yet there is at least one thing that unites them all, has always united those of us who choose military service in a free and democratic society.

Their service – our service, the service of every veteran in this courtyard today – is and was an act of faith. An act of faith in our constitution, our system of government, and our ideals. An act of faith in the officers appointed over us, and in our elected, civilian leaders. But most of all, an act of faith in the American people themselves, in the sound judgment and integrity of the American character. Ultimately, veterans are people who believe in our system of government and our society deeply enough to place their lives and futures in its hands. As they stand ready to fight for us, our men and women in uniform trust us to decide if and when they must confront the awful face of battle.

So as we give thanks today to those who have served, I would argue that, as a society, we owe our veterans more than thanks. We owe them more, even, than state of the art medical care, educational benefits, and other vital programs. I think we owe them citizenship, in the deepest meaning of that word. We owe it to them to ensure that our system of government and our collective judgment justifies their faith. We owe it to them to ensure that this democratic republic of ours remains worthy of their sacrifice, and the service of future generations.

Michael Breen