Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I spent the 33rd anniversary of being a commissioned officer in the United States Military leading the last portion of a Staff Ride at Gettysburg with the officers, Command Sergeant Major and First Sergeants of the Army Recruiting Battalion based in Cleveland Ohio. In fact today was the portion dealing with Pickett’s Charge and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It was a fitting thing to be doing today.
Thirty-three years ago I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army at UCLA. I spent 17 1/2 years in the service, including some National Guard enlisted service before I was released by the Army Reserve to enter the active duty Navy.
Commissioning Ceremony at UCLA
I am not going to talk about the long strange trip that my life has been since I was commissioned as I have done that before a number of times. Today I think was fitting because I talked about the defeat of the Confederate invasion that was meant to permanently rip the country that I serve now apart. And frankly, as a commissioned officer I have no doubt that the defeat of the Confederacy and all that it stood for was absolutely necessary for the proposition in the Declaration of Independence that “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal….”
These were words which Abraham Lincoln began to universalize beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation which were echoed in his Gettysburg Address. I always finish the Staff Ride at the Soldier’s Cemetery and conclude by reading Lincoln’s “brief remarks.” For me they are the proposition, the spirit that guides the United States, and Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, that It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. “It is rather for us to be here 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, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Those words for the basis of so much that has happened since Gettysburg; the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment which overturned the travesty of the Dred Scott Decision and and the Fugitive Slave Act by ensuring that anyone born in this county is a citizen with full citizenship rights, and the 15th Amendment which gave Blacks the Right to vote. Those were the beginning, and the 14th Amendment was the most important, for it was the first Constitutional Amendment which extended rights to peoples formerly enslaved, and formed the basis for, and legal precedent for further extensions of civil rights. They were followed by the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote, the American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, and the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1943, continued them. Laws meant purely to discriminate against the rights of African Americans and other minorities were overthrown by Supreme Court decisions such and Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which overturned the “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws which had been upheld by the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1894. These were joined by the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the revocation of laws which banned homosexuals from serving in the military, and most recently the Obergfell v. Hodges decision that allowed LGBTQ people to marry and receive the same rights as heterosexual couples anywhere in the country.
Of course there is still so much to be done. People whose political ideology is rooted in the same limits on freedom as were the foundation of the Confederacy still fight basic civil rights for people that they despise at every opportunity.
The oath that I swore when I was commissioned thirty-three years ago, and which I have repeated with every promotion, and when I transferred to the Navy in 1999 states that “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.”
I take that seriously, and every time I go to Gettysburg I have the importance of that reaffirmed as I walk the battlefield and stand in the Soldier’s Cemetery, and ponder what those men who stood in the path of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fought for, and which I have both fought for and swear to maintain, against all enemies, foreign and domestic. My task is also to continue to labor for and be dedicated to the task remaining; that from the honored dead who lay at Gettysburg and so many other places, that I take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that I here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
For me those words are personal, and that my friends is why I continue to serve, and why what was done and said at Gettysburg means so much to me.