Saturday, March 11, 2006

Student speeches from Columbia University Chaplain's Prayer for Troops and Veterans

Columbia milvets folding the flag in Saint Paul's Chapel Columbia University Julia presenting the folded flag of Chaplain Davis's father, a Korean War veteran, to Chaplain Davis
The members of the flag folding detail were Eric Chen (GS), Peter Kim (GS), Mike Nicholas (GS), Julia (SEAS:grad), Matt Sanchez (GS), Mark Xue (CC), and Riaz Zaidi (CC). Julia was the officer in charge and Mike Nicholas was the sergeant in charge. For coverage of the event, see Special Ceremony for U.S. Troops in the 20MAR06 Columbia University Record.

Following are the student speeches from Chaplain's Prayer for Troops and Veterans, March 9, 2006 at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University. The student speakers are Julia (SEAS: grad), Peter Kim (GS), Mark Xue (CC), and Oscar Escano (GS).

OPENING REMARKS. Julia, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, US Army Captain, served as a Company Commander in Korea & Afghanistan:

Good afternoon Chaplain Davis, fellow students and friends of Columbia.

As a former Company Commander stationed in Korea, I think about a day at the Rifle Range a few months ago. I ran into Private Laue coming off the firing line. With one look at his target you could see that he fired expertly. The company had unanimously nicknamed him "Big Country" and I couldn't help but play off the stereotype a little and asked if he learned how to shoot chasing squirrels as a kid in the backwoods. He replied, "No ma'am, I never fired a weapon until I enlisted. I am what the Army made me."

What he said was burned into my brain and has stuck with me because I feel as though it speaks volumes about the Army. The warriors of the past have taught us and molded the Army of today. The Army that we see strewn across the globe today is made possible by the sweat and blood of what previous Armies and our surroundings have made us.

Ask an average Columbia student walking across campus where the U.S. is engaged in WAR right now and the typical responses would likely include Iraq. You ask which war is nicknamed the "Forgotten War" and most would answer Afghanistan. Few would even include Korea in any of their responses to either of these questions, but indeed it would be correct. Korea is the area of operations in which we've been engaged in one of the longest conflicts. We are currently in a state of Armistice and U.S. presence there is a deterrent to North Korean aggression.

As most veterans of recent Korea deployments know, within 24 hours of landing in the country you're given a "threat brief" where you're told that 20,000 artillery tubes are pointed at you right now. North Korea doesn't need fancy computerized long-range missiles or biological weapons to devastate Seoul, the capital of South Korea; regular old conventional weapons will do the trick to do a land grab across the DMZ. There have been U.S. troops stationed there for over 50 years and even with deliberate troop reductions in the region, head-counts still rack up to over 35,000 today. So you may ask, why are we there today? I won't give a spin-doctored political statement but all I can say with absolute certainty is that it is in the noble pursuit of peace and the ultimate reunification of the two countries.

Life as a U.S. service member in Korea now lacks many of the creature comforts of home but in many ways can be considered comparable to some stateside duty stations. It is a far cry from what our predecessors had to endure. The snowy hilltops, which Soldiers defended with ferocity, are now sprawling Army camps. The ports in which MacArthur conducted the great Inchon landing are now sophisticated homes to private and military transportation hubs. Korea itself has leapt into a globally competitive industrialized nation . . . all of these qualities would be hardly recognizable to the Korean War veterans whose lives it took to make this possible, whose families were left behind to fight a battle in a foreign land, whose presence in that country stirred controversy, and whose blood was shed in pursuit of a greater good.

Is it like Iraq? Will we see the same transformations in their future? I don't know, but I do know that many of the Soldiers serving in Korea today, and myself, sometimes take for granted the hard-fought battles and sacrifices that were made there and earned a special place in history in order to make both our country and their country great. Those warriors that went before us forged an unmistakable bond and their sacrifices are woven into the legacy that makes our country what it is today. So, in a lot of ways, we are what they made us . . . Chaplain Davis' father, whom we honor here today with the presentation of the American flag, was one of these great Americans who answered the call to serve in Korea. He did so on behalf of you, me and our great nation, and we honor him in symbolic observance of his generation's sacrifice.

So if I were to share a foxhole with him today, I'd turn to him and say thank you. Thank you for serving so that other people didn't have to. Thanks for serving so that my parents could immigrate to this country, which allowed me to go to college, become an officer in the same Army that YOU helped to build, in order to come back around full circle and serve on the same soil you served. So, Thank you, Sir, because . . . I am what you made me.

MILVETS PRAYER. Peter Kim, General Studies, served with the US Marines in Korea & Iraq:

CLOSING REMARKS (1). Mark Xue, Columbia College, President of Hamilton Society (formerly Columbia Military Society), US Marines officer candidate:

There are two related but distinct military communities at Columbia, which bracket the military experience. On the one hand, the CU Milvets represent military veterans who have returned to school after their terms of service, bringing their military experience to academia. On the other hand, the Hamilton Society represents students who, in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton, seek to use their Columbia education in the service of their country.

When America decides to put its young fighting men and women in dangerous places, it turns to officers - fresh college graduates like many of you will shortly be - to lead them there. It is an incredible burden, to be entrusted with some of the finest people this country can produce, to lead them into dark and ugly places, and to return them with honor. When we here ask for the protection of our troops in mind and body, I remind you that those cadets and officer candidates among you will have the opportunity, and responsibility, of ensuring their physical and moral safety. To them, I say this: never forget that regardless of your service, branch, or specialty, your ultimate responsibility is for the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen in your charge. America entrusts you with its finest. Honor that trust.

MilVets President Oscar Escano delivering closing remarks
Oscar Escano delivering closing remarks

CLOSING REMARKS (2). Oscar Escano, General Studies, President of US Military Veterans of Columbia University (MilVets), served as a US Army Ranger in Afghanistan:

Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for coming. Thank you, Chaplain Davis, for bestowing this great honor upon us. Thank you, fellow Columbia military veterans, for permitting these wonderful people to bear witness to the most sacred and solemn token of respect to one of our fallen comrades. Most of all, thank you Mr. Davis, for your service. Everything I am about to say is about you, Sir.

For those of you who have never seen a flag-folding ceremony, you may be wondering: Just what does this all mean? I think it has everything to do with sacrifice. But what is sacrifice? Sacrifice stems from an understanding that there is something out there that is greater than yourself. It is a feeling that comes from deep inside of you; a core-shaking confidence in a belief that makes you stop acting in pursuit of your own immediate self-interest and instead for the benefit of that belief.

Sacrifice is when a single mom from the projects works two, even three jobs, so her kids can be fed and clothed. Sacrifice is when a civil rights protestor stands firm and marches on, despite knowing that he is moments away from being beaten by police, attacked by dogs, or knocked to the ground by water from a fire hose. Sacrifice is when a Guatemalan immigrant in Fort Lee, New Jersey does backbreaking construction work for $7 an hour just to send some money home every few weeks.

But it strikes me that in our generation, sacrifice is largely seen as either a relic of the past (an outdated, irrelevant value), or something tucked away in society and rarely sought after or openly admired. My generation is a great one, but it has mostly lost sight of what sacrifice means. I fear that our catchphrase is moving away from the words of Helen Keller, that true happiness "is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose," and towards the catchphrase, "What have you done for me lately?"

However, there is one group that will never lose sight of what it means to sacrifice, and that's Soldiers. Soldiers will always know sacrifice because to be a soldier, by the very nature of the profession, is to sacrifice everything you have. To this day, when you become a Soldier you give up your Playstation, your television, even your friends. Even then, when all those things your generation regards as valuable have been taken away from you, you sacrifice even more to do one more push-up, march one more mile, or endure one more exhausting day of fighting. And you keep giving, not to the point of discomfort, but to the point of necessity, until as Winston Churchill said, you "have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat."

I'd like to tell you a story about sacrifice as I witnessed it personally. Exactly 4 years and 6 days ago, at about this same time of day, I found myself with half of my Ranger platoon on a mountaintop in Northern Afghanistan fighting for our lives. In the predawn hours, a terrible thing had occurred. A helicopter carrying fellow Special Operations troops was fired upon by Al Qaeda, and one of its occupants fell out of the helicopter and was in enemy hands. We had every reason to believe he was dead, but we were resolute in our need to recover him. Dead or alive, big or small, he would not be left behind.

A few short hours later, we arrived at the mountain via helicopter and began a daylong battle with the enemy there. At about this very time that day, five of our men had already been killed. Surrounded and likely outnumbered in the middle of Al Qaeda territory, we were in a firefight with a cluster of fighters who were shooting from an adjacent hilltop with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Bullets smacked into the knee-deep snow all around us with a relentless staccato rhythm and rockets blew up at our feet as we gritted our teeth and struggled to regain the initiative.

It was during this particular firefight, as I returned fire from behind a rock, that I saw something incredible. Air Force medic Jason Cunningham was kneeling out in the open, tending to one of the wounded, as all of this was going on. He was by no means unaware of the firefight in progress. He knew he was a target when bullets cracked over his head. And it was certainly not the case that he didn't care. It just wasn't important to him at the time. He knew his duty to that wounded soldier was more important than his own safety.


A burst of machine gun ammo shot through the air. He screamed. When I got to him, I asked him where he was hit. He seemed determined not to lose his cool. He pointed to his abdomen and told me, "I think it's OK, I think it's OK." As a squad medic myself, I felt around under his shirt and waistline, trying to find an entry wound. By that time my comrades caught up to me and pulled him behind cover while I cared for his patient. A few hours later, Jason was dead. His patient, however, survived.


Jason knew he was in danger, as we all did. But something became more important to him than his own safety - the care of his men and the success of the mission. In a generation that occasionally glorifies consumption and personal gain, we don't hear stories like this very often, which is why I was compelled to tell it to you today.
Today's ceremony is about sacrifice. The flag you saw folded represents the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for a belief: the belief that this nation, despite its imperfections, is a great nation. The belief that (as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor says to his recruits) "the man to the left and right of you is more important than YOU are." The belief that freedom isn't free, but that it requires that brave young men and women give up their own freedom so that others may enjoy it - even when this means exercising the freedom to speak badly about them.

That flag you saw folded today means everything to a soldier. We salute it when we pass it. Our coffins are draped with it. And when we come home after serving, as every military veteran at this university has done, we never look at our flag in the same way again.

Point of contact: Eric Chen (elc2003 at columbia.edu)


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