As veterans and service members, we live in a new era divorced from the travesty of how we treated our returning veterans during Vietnam. I have never experienced the hate and spite that so many lived through during those times. When someone learns of my service, they can’t tell me emphatically enough how much they appreciate my service. I am constantly humbled by these statements. It is difficult for me to respond with anything other than an inadequate, “Thank you.”
I had the privilege of serving with 2nd Lt. Joey Fortin during my last deployment in Iraq. We worked together mentoring government councils on how to be functioning, healthy democracies. Fortin was funny, intelligent, and most of all, humble. He treated everyone the same whether they were a general or a private. He never barked orders or berated those who served under his command. This is despite being an officer at the young age of 22, who was tasked with leading men and women twice his age. He would calmly and succinctly tell them what he needed them to do, or listen attentively to their requests and concerns. His soldiers respected him because he always took the time to get to know them. He understood that one of the most important elements in leadership is that if you show those who are tasked with following you that you respect them, they will follow you to the ends of the earth. Fortin was killed in action while serving in Iraq. His vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED). I was not there to mourn his passing, as my unit returned home before this happened.
Every time I hear someone thank me for my service I can only think of Fortin and that my service is nothing remotely praise-worthy by comparison. And yet, at least we live in a time where that service is honored. I can hardly imagine being one of those who served in Vietnam and were never able to hear these simple words of gratitude that mean so much. After thanking me for my service, people always ask me what more they can do. I have always been hard pressed to answer. But in the spirit of Fortin’s sacrifice and all those that came before him, I will try to offer a humble response.
Allow me to quote these words from a previous Memorial Day remembrance:
“It is for us, the living, to be dedicated to the unfinished work of those who have, thus far, so nobly advanced the principles we hold so dear. It is for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we, here, highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” These words were spoken on the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 19, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln on the hallowed fields of Gettysburg.
I would submit that we can honor the fallen by caring for the living who have put themselves in harm’s way at the risk of their own lives. I believe that we give our respect to those heroes who have fallen by continuing to give the necessary support to our men and women in uniform who have and are returning home. Let us all here renew our commitment today to stand up for our fallen by recognizing the sacrifices of their living brothers and sisters in arms, along with all their families who have shared the heavy burden of war. Let us renew that commitment today by honoring those who stand up and answer the call to service. While commendable, it is not enough to gather once a year to mourn those who have died. We must reaffirm our sacred trust with our veterans by meeting our commitments to them. Only in doing so, do we guarantee that American patriots shall continue to offer up their lives in the most selfless form of sacrifice and service.
President George Washington stated: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
We can honor the memory of the fallen by ensuring that those that come after have the opportunity to go to college. We can show gratitude and respect for their service by giving them the opportunity to make a living and care for their families. We can renew our pact with them by committing to treat the wounds inflicted in service, both seen and unseen.
As I think back on Fortin’s sacrifice, I know this is not enough. There is no thank you strong enough to equal the giving of one’s life. But as a community we can accomplish these tasks to make a worthy attempt. I would ask you to remember service members who you know that have fallen the way that I remember Fortin, and help in the work as a state and nation to achieve this small measure of gratitude every day, not just on Memorial Day.
• Resident Corey Harris is an Iraq combat veteran and veterans advocate. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he helped established the ASU Alumni Association Veteran’s Chapter. He has completed two tours in the Iraq War as a civil affairs team