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Memorial Day Speech By
Florida State Senator Jeff Atwater

To Bill Baggett, and, by extension of our gratitude and love of Bea. We thank you Bill for gathering us today to express a community's appreciation and devotion to the finest of a country's gifts.

When Memorial Day was officially proclaimed by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, on May 5, 1868, and celebrated on May 30 of that year. He defined the purpose of Memorial Day observances: "Let no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations, that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided Republic."

While Memorial Day is a time of reflection it should also be a time of celebration. This day is unique in its blend of somber remembrance of the men, women and families who have paid so dearly, and celebration of the virtues and values that lead generation after generation to give so much for the noble ideals of this great nation. President Benjamin Harrison, himself a soldier, captured this sense of Memorial Day: "I have never been able to think of the day as one of mourning; I have never quite been able to feel that half-massed flags were appropriate on Memorial Day. I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak, because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it. We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration o f what they did."

In that spirit let us remember and celebrate the valor, of the more than 600,000 Americans that have offered their last full measure of devotion to this nation, including thousands of Floridians and hundreds of men and women from our local communities. Let us remember and celebrate the unique, almost indescribable bonds that unite all Americans. In an era where there are many willing to dismiss or destroy the essence of our nation, let us choose this day to remember and celebrate those very virtues that make us great. For it is in the arena of battle, where injury and death too often occur, when relationships emerge that reach beyond the shallowness of naysayers and remind us of the strength and vitality of the larger American community.

Two families, the Shirleys, from here in Palm Beach County, and the Seidels, from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, can speak personally to the painful richness of that experien ce.

Sgt. Luke Shirley was seriously injured in an attack near Baghdad in December of 2006, that resulted in the loss of his right arm and right leg. While recuperating in Walter Reed Hospital, Sgt. Shirley learned that he would soon become the recipient of a specially designed van that could accommodate his injuries and his wheelchair. This was a gift that, in essence, returned to Sgt. Shirley a small piece of independence and freedom he fought for and so richly deserves.

Roughly six months prior to the attack that so grievously wounded Sgt. Shirley, another soldier, 1st Lt. Robert Seidel III, was killed by an IED that detonated near his HumVee. Both soldiers served in the 10th Mountain Division at the time of their fateful days, but the families had never met.

When Sgt. Shirley received his van, between the first and second quarters of an Army – Rhode Island football game, he and his family were met by the parents of Lt. Seidel, in whose honor the van was being provided. On that day, at that moment, two families immediately understood, in ways most of us will never understand, what it meant to share something so sacred.

Today, the father of Sgt. Luke Shirley is with us – Please join me in expressing to Jim Shirley our gratitude to Sgt. Shirley.

Let me share with you the often quoted thoughts of John Stuart Mill, the great nineteenth century English philosopher. "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature, and has no chance of being free unless made or kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."

And that’s what these two families, and by extension all participants in this great American dream, celebrate this day. This is why we can look at Memorial Day through two prisms, one tinted with sorrow, the other with joy, that together provide a clear vision of heroism and honor.

There have been many verses written about this celebration of American virtue, some wistful, some dramatic, but none more moving than the following: "Bury me beneath that old oak tree, down by the creek I used to play in as a child. And you will see, when you hear the bugle play, it plays for me. And my soul will carry on."

What makes these lines so poignant is that they were written by Robert Seidel and were found on his computer when it was returned to his family a month after the Lieutenant’s funeral. They are now inscribed on his headstone.

1st Lt. Robert Seidel was buried in his hometown of Emmitsburg, Maryland. His final resting place is near an old oak tree, close by the creek he played in as a child. The steadfast solemnity of an ancient oak and the purposeful commitment of a steady stream are apt symbols for the life of a fallen soldier.

All who have offered that last full measure of devotion in our country’s armed services have more than met their obligations to current and future generations of Americans. Now it is our turn. Though none of us will ever witness the final condition of what this country will become – we must each be about its noble formation. Let me leave you with an admonition from the Talmud: "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."

Thank you and God Bless.