When I was first called to speak today my first thought was, “What in the world am I going to say?” I feel like that when I am talking to any surviving family. You would think it would get easier with time. It does not. Tragedy is still tragic. Loss is still painful. Our pain is still real. No matter the time. No matter the distance. No matter what anyone says. We still miss them. As scripture says, “Many waters cannot quench love, rivers cannot sweep it away.”
Our love has not perished, and it won’t. I am standing up here because my husband was killed. Some of you are also here to honor a spouse; others of you are here to honor a son or a daughter, a father or a mother, a sister or a brother, or a dear friend.
Many of us are thinking. “This is not the way my life should be.” “This is not the life I want to live.” “This was not part of the plan.” I remember thinking those very things every time I woke up during that first year after my husband was killed. We were stationed in Germany when the news came so I was told I had to leave very quickly. I not only had to leave my house, I had to leave my friends. My belongings were packed up, my memories were in boxes. When I boarded the plane to the states, my life, as I knew it, was no more. My husbands grandmother had recently moved into a nursing home so I asked the family if I could live in her house for a time. Of course, they agreed. During the days and months after the news came I found myself in a borrowed home, in a strange city, surrounded by things not my own, driving a car not my own, and living a life that I did not want to live. When I woke each morning, my brain tried to rationalize what I was seeing – the unfamiliar surroundings – the flowered wallpaper, the blue curtains, the strange furnishings. Then I would remember. And the tears would fall. “This is not the way my life should be.” This is not how it was supposed to end.” “This was not part of the plan.” Those thoughts went through my head every day. At times they still do, almost eight years later.
Why is it so hard to cope? Because not only do our lives change, but our plans change, our future hopes change, our dreams are altered. Our entire outlook has to shift. That in turn causes us to change. None of you are the same people you used to be. I looked at a friend the other day and told her, this is the first year I have felt, “normal.” It has been over seven years. And the “normal” I feel today is in no way the normal I was before the soldiers knocked on my door. We are different. We are survivors. I have never liked the word widow. It doesn’t define who I am. Survivor does. By definition, a survivor survives. That is what I feel like I am doing every day. I am sure you feel the same. We rise above the pain and become someone we didn’t know we could become. We survive, we change, we find our new normal. Most of the time this change is for the better. God promises us that when bad things befall us, he will cause good to grow from it. This is very apparent here today. Katie Van Aalst has stared a run to honor her husband Jared. This run raises money for collage scholarships. Through tragedy, Katie’s changed life causes lives to be changed. Florence McSween is now President of Gold Star Mothers of Georgia in honor of her son Adam. Through tragedy, Florence changed life causes lives to be changed. Deb Tainsh has written two books on grief to honor her stepson Patrick. Through Deb’s changed life, lives are changed. And there are many more examples here today. Many more stories of hope rising from the ashes.
Why do we do this? What are we shouting to the world by our actions? They cannot be forgotten. Their names cannot be forgotten. They have to live on. Why? Because our love will never die. My story is only one story. There are 109 stories in the room we are about to see, and each one is worth telling. That is why I feel so inadequate standing before you today. My pain is real, but so is yours. I tell every survivor I meet, “I can understand your pain better than most, but I still can’t understand completely because each situation is different and each life is unique.” Their lives were unique.
As we look at these faces today, remember each one has a story, and that story has spilled over to every life they have touched. As we look at these men and women who fought and died for this country, who gave the ultimate sacrifice, we also need to remember they did so out of love: love of country, love of freedom, love of life.
That love never dies. As survivors, we need to keep that love alive, not just the love for each individual soldier, but the love each and every individual soldier shared: The love of America, the love of freedom, the love of life. Evil still exists. America is normally on the front lines, standing tall against a rising darkness. Our men and women, those we love, those we remember today, were on those front lines. We can’t let the line be breached. We must take up our own arms, in our own unique way, and fight for their memory, which means fighting for the America they died loving.
Most of us, when we think of army slogans we think of “the army of one” or “be all that you can be.” But those are recruiting slogans. They are not the official army motto. The official army motto is “This We’ll Defend.”
As you walk these halls and look at these faces, these 109 beautiful faces, each with their own unique stories, this is what I want you to say, “This We’ll Defend.”
We will defend their memory. We will defend their love: the love of America, the love of freedom, and the love of life.
Stand firm, survivors. Stand firm.
Hold the line.