Veteran's Reception Speech 2012
Keynote Address by Gen. John J. Sheehan ’62, USMC (Ret.)
Father Monan, distinguished guests, classmates and fellow veterans. It is an honor to be with you here today.
Some 50 years ago over 100 members of the Class of 1962 were appointed officers in the United States military. I do not remember ever discussing our individual reasons for joining; but I suspect many of us responded to this particular profession because of a sense of patriotism or the idealism imparted to our generation by then President John F. Kennedy.
In one of his last visits to Boston College President Kennedy remarked that “Never before in our history has there been a greater need for men of integrity and courage to serve in public life. Never before in our history, has there been a greater need for citizens to willingly take up the responsibilities of free government."
Certainly you as educated Catholics are committed to bear your share of the burden, for the philosophy that you have been taught here at Boston College is needed in the solution of the problems we face.
As graduates of the Jesuit Ivy, facing war and peace, with the fate of civilization hanging in the balance, the somber question indeed the survival of our faith and country is at stake, each of you can afford to answer that call to service.
President Kennedy’s call to public service and specifically his call to defend our faith are truer today than it was some 50 years ago.
Seventeen months after our graduation, President Kennedy was dead; and 72 months after we graduated those of us who were still serving in the military were not welcome here at Boston College.
Our generation served in a 10 year war that at best is characterized as a war that was fought under confused political direction. As a result, even today there are many false myths about the young Americans, who fought in the Vietnam War.
Let me first say that I am not the least bit ashamed of, or regret, a single day of service to our country or for my service in Vietnam. Sure there were bad days; but most of all I am extremely proud of the people I have served with.
I would like to give you some facts about the generation that served in Vietnam.
There were 2.7 million Americans who actually served in Vietnam. Today there are only about 850,000 still alive.
What is more interesting is that according to the 2000 census there are over 13 million Americans who claimed to have served in Vietnam.
We should ask why is it that so many Americans want to lie to themselves and others about military service in a war in which they never served or at best protested.
In all on my travels and discussions over the last 40 years, I have yet to have a single person tell me that they were at Woodstock. Yet hardly a week goes by that some person does not comment on how proud they are to have served in the military or their sons and daughters are serving in the military.
In ten years of combat in Vietnam, there were 58,202 causalities. 29 of these were our brothers from Boston College.
By comparison, the average Vietnam infantry man saw over 240 days of combat in one year compared to his WWII counterpart who saw 40 days in four years.
Amputations or crippling wounds were 300% higher in Vietnam than in World War II, and 70% higher than in Korea.
79% of the men who served in Vietnam had a high school education compared to 63 % for Korea and 45% for WWII.
Vietnam veterans have a lower unemployment rate than the same non-veteran age group.
There is no difference in drug usage between Vietnam Veterans and non-Veterans of the same age group
Vietnam Veterans are less likely to be in prison; only one half of 1% has been jailed for crimes.
Vietnam veterans’ personal income exceeds that of our non-veteran age group by more than 18%
This is the same Hollywood maligned generation that went on to win the Cold War, create the world’s strongest economy and help transition former Soviet Union states into fledging democracies.
I served two combat tours in Vietnam and one in Iraq.
Those that served in war understand how quickly combat erases any distinction of race, culture or religion.
For the record, none of the participants that I know show any signs of acute mental illness, although a few are clearly troubled… This is because only the most insensitive of men can make such a journey unmarked.
These men ask nothing from the society they served. They demand no debt, they claim no arrears, and they wish no reward.
Under fire, men are not moved by the call of country or the rhetoric of a cause. They fight to survive; they fight for their comrades… This was the real lesson of Iwo Jima’s bloody beaches, the frozen Chosin Reservoir, Fallujah Iraq and every other conflict in which this nation has fought.
We shared rations, slept under the same wet ponchos, marched for months at each other’s side. It does not take long for strangers to turn into comrades or for two men to find in one another a vein of humor, human decency or raw courage.
In a fight, when you are laying there wounded there are some basic truths that become crystal clear. The first is that there is a God and He is there with you. The second is that wounded or dead, comrades were never left behind. What ever the cost no matter how many men were killed or cut down trying, you came after your own. Marines marched out into the killing zone not because they were ordered to ---they went instead because each of us believed that if he was lying in the mud others would come for him. These men are your brothers they are your family.
Today, we the living, would be negligent if we did not remind each other that around the globe there are still 24 American Cemeteries on foreign soil. In these cemeteries, are 220,000 of our sons and daughters where they rest forever in God’s arms. Some only have their names memorialized on plaques because their earthly remains are lost forever in the depths of some ocean or their bodies have never been recovered from some far flung nameless battlefield.
As a nation we can be proud that millions of other people in far flung lands are free today and they enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities we do because our sons and daughters marched to the sounds of the guns so others may be free.
This is the legacy of the class of 1962 and you Veterans of other wars.
God bless you and thank you.