My brother, LTC Michael Fenzel, gave this speech to over a thousand students at Hampshire High School, in Hampshire Illinois on Veteran's Day...
My brother, LTC Michael Fenzel, gave this speech to over a thousand students at Hampshire High School, in Hampshire Illinois on Veteran's Day...
I was trying to think of what this day meant to me in high school and I can’t say that it meant much to me growing up…that’s just being honest.
For me the first time I really understood what a difference our military makes in the world was in muddy, foggy and cold Bosnia back in December of 1995. Our airborne battalion had landed on Tuzla airfield to carry out our mission of disarming the two sides of that war and enforce the shaky peace that was in place. I was a young captain in the battalion visiting the troops guarding the base in positions along the fence of the airfield.
There were these small and sturdy homes made of wood & cinder blocks just outside the airfield, groups of kids playing soccer on the frozen, patchy fields and I remember they were running around howling with laughter and their breath sort of hung in the cold air. It was really cold. I started to notice an old woman bringing hot coffee to our soldiers every morning as they stood guard and after about a week of seeing her ritual, I happily took a small cup of her strong coffee and thanked her for going to the trouble…and then I told her that she didn’t have to do this for us.
This proud and weathered woman paused, her eyes filled with tears, and she said, “Before you arrived my daughter had to hide in the basement every day, every day. We didn’t know what would happen to us next. When you Americans came the fighting stopped. And now you see my daughter playing soccer there with her friends? So please…at least let me bring you coffee.”
We had made a difference and it was hard not to feel it after meeting that woman.
When I joined the Army it was a pretty smooth transition since I’d played sports through high school and college…and I guess it felt like I was transitioning from playing football to another kind of team…that’s what it felt like…especially in the platoon I served with through my first year in the Army, through Desert Shield and Desert Storm when I was 22years old.
It was so similar to sports because of the familiar environment. Many of you play on some kind of team or probably involved in club of some kind with other kids…you find out pretty early on that winning is important---but that doing the best you can for your teammates is even more important. It’s the pressure you feel in not wanting to let anyone else down that probably drives you. Your teammates make you better when you’re on a good team. They make you work harder and they push you to focus on getting ready for the game…and then winning feels so darned important.
But if you think about why it feels so good to win on a Saturday afternoon or whenever you play…a big part of it is because you’ve done something great with the guys or gals you worked with so hard in practice. So all of a sudden friendship becomes a big part of getting it done. Some of your best friends in life will be the people you’ve been on teams with or done big projects with here in high school.
It’s the same in the military, but what’s at stake is so much greater...literally our freedom and our future. It doesn’t feel like that to you on the ground in Afghanistan or Iraq, but it’s a fact.
And I’d venture to guess there aren’t a lot of troops out there in Afghanistan and Iraq who care much about the politics of these wars right now. But I KNOW for a fact that these great Americans are looking out for each other. You join the military for your country but you fight for your friends….that’s the reality of military service and some insight into what motivates veterans who keep serving even after several tours in combat.
Veterans Day is about a few things I think…military service is about these same things and I wanted to share with you from my experience. So, FIRST, it is about friendship; SECOND, heroes are very normal people with extraordinary qualities; and THIRD, families – not individual soldiers -- go to war.
My first point to you this morning is that Veterans Day is about friendship and devotion to something bigger than yourself.
The thing about military service guys is that now it means risking everything…all of your hopes and dreams are put at risk for your country…all your ambitions put on hold in order to do something that will make your country stronger. That’s pretty awesome…and it’s also pretty scary when you stop to think about it…it takes a special kind of person to make that kind of sacrifice and with over one million of our citizens volunteering to serve, it’s literally what makes us the greatest country in the world.
There are about 25 million veterans in our country. Ten million of these vets are over the age of 65. I think that’s pretty incredible. So if you’re trying to think of a reason whether or not to take the time out of your busy day to say hello or “thanks” to someone that fought in WWII, Korea, or Vietnam…well consider that they make up less than 2 percent of our country’s population but they bore the full burden of fighting for our country and serving it when we needed them most. I’ll start this and hope it becomes a trend today and every day after this one….and so I’ll just say THANK YOU again to all of you one more time.
Right now, at this moment there are over 250,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines away from the ones they love serving in the military and deployed. It ain’t easy for any of them. But leaving politics aside…there is something incredibly noble about this profession and I guess it’s why I’ve loved serving alongside so many these amazing men and women over the course of twenty years and why I’m still doing it.
So to my second point, heroes are normal people with extraordinary qualities inside them, you’ll see that when you meet the troops that will be in your classrooms this afternoon --- they volunteered to take the risks of military service in a time of war. There is some greatness in each of them as you’ll see for yourselves.
I wanted to tell you about one particular hero of mine, a guy named Private First-Class Thomas Wilson who I had the privilege of serving with in Afghanistan. He grew up and went to a high school in Maurertown, Virginia where kids ride around on their bikes without worrying about traffic and people keep their doors unlocked…not all that unlike Hampshire. Thomas was tall, skinny, and fast. He had steady hands and that made him good at playing basketball, hunting and fishing, and drawing. He was super laid back, but very quick with a joke, especially if one of his friends walked into it. Thomas was just easy to be around.
He joined the Army in 2005 right after high school and decided to go to airborne school so he could be a paratrooper. In 2006 he joined our battalion in Italy and started training.
Before too long Thomas was made the armorer of our headquarters company, the largest company in the battalion, and being in that job meant he was responsible for taking care of and repairing over 500 weapons. Right away he focused on becoming an expert on all that equipment and turned around a very weak operation to make it the best in the battalion. The company started to depend on him…Thomas proved that it didn’t matter how long you’d been in a unit before you could make a difference. So we all deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 and his job got more difficult because of the pace of operations and need for all that equipment to be ready all the time. When you’re at war you need your weapons to work. Thomas was 19 years old with some incredible responsibility.
Day in and day out he worked until broken weapons were repaired or patrols that needed help getting ready to go had their equipment double-checked by his trained eye. The platoons in the company had been fighting on a regular basis and Thomas wanted to get out of the arms room to, in his words, “do his part.”
Pretty soon Thomas was taking turns going out on long patrols in the mountains with the scout platoon and proving he was every bit as tough as any soldier in our battalion. He volunteered to be the gunner in the company’s lead HMMV on a convoy going down what we called “ambush alley” in a volatile place called Zerok District in Afghanistan. About 30minutes into the drive enemy rifle and rocket propelled grenade fire erupted and slammed into their vehicles. Thomas wheeled his 50caliber machine gun directly toward the foreign fighters shooting at him…and fired. He fired three full cans of ammunition for over 45minutes during this fierce fight and then reached down to get another can. At that same moment an armor piercing bullet whizzed through the steel of the protective cupola and hit him as he was coming back up.
Thomas died in a medic’s arms in the back seat, as the fight was raging just outside the doors of the HMMV.
I think that Thomas Wilson’s heroism was in how quietly professional and committed to his job he was every day and doing whatever he could to make his team better every day. He put off going to University of West Virginia to serve his country. He left the safety of the office he worked in to go on patrol so he could give other soldiers a break. He never thought twice about putting himself at risk and he never hesitated when his friends were under fire. In fact his brilliance under fire saved the lives of ten other soldiers that day. Far too many veterans have painful memories like this one where their friends gave their lives for our country…we relive these experiences on Veterans Day and on so many other days.
Another thing I can tell you is that this day has special meaning for all of us, not just veterans. But it will mean a lot more if you stop to think about the people you know that have a brother or sister, mom or dad serving. Because Thomas had a younger brother and two sisters and a mother that loved him dearly, his mom is a special lady named Julie Hepner.
My last point to you today is that people don’t go to war, and even though I know technically it’s our country that’s at war…the reality is that American Families that go to war.
The parents, spouses, children, brothers or sisters of servicemen are making a sacrifice that very few people know about, really understand, or fully appreciate. Your pain of separation and lost time is something that you don’t have any control over. I personally owe a debt of gratitude to my parents, wife, kids, my brothers and sister and close friends. I know that I’m one of many who have gotten through these long deployments by depending on family.
I lost friends and have seen many of my fellow soldiers wounded but never gave a thought to not continuing the mission because there was that feeling I was telling you about…there’s no way you’re going to let down your fellow soldiers, your teammates…and the support of your FAMILY sorta makes you feel like you have another layer of body armor…protecting you.
I had dinner with a good friend after returning from Afghanistan whose son was a lieutenant in our battalion. This gentleman had himself been on secret missions in Khartoum in the heart of Africa many years before and had been involved with counter-terrorism at the ground level as an operative with the CIA. But when he spoke about his son being at war he said with this anxiety and these anguished wrinkles in his face, “Every single day is hard. Every single day you worry and it doesn’t get easier and you don’t get used to it.”
His son was back home safe by then but he had tears in his eyes. I was blown away partly because I had never thought that much about it until then. Then you realize that even though there were 800 soldiers in our battalion there were probably ten times that number who carried those soldiers in their hearts.
So I want to do something a little different this Veterans Day and honor the families, and especially the parents, spouses, and children of our veterans who carry this invisible burden while we do our duty.
The last day I was in command of our battalion in Italy, all 800 of the paratroopers in the organization went for a run together around the military post there in Italy…and if you’ve never seen that many soldiers running together I can tell you it’s a pretty impressive sight…they’re barking out cadence at the top of their lungs like you see in the movies and these big flags are out in front we call the “battalion colors” waving majestically in the wind. On that day Thomas Wilson’s family was visiting us. They’d come all the way to Italy from Virginia to meet the soldiers he’d written home about and told his mom he loved serving alongside.
So I asked Thomas’ little brother Ethan to carry the colors next to me on that morning run at the very front of our formation. He carried the spirit of his brother with him and inspired everyone who saw it. I think we all drew strength from watching Ethan leading the way for us. And you need it.
The families of our veterans have a unique strength that we all draw on before going to war, while we’re away, and after we come home.
The irony for me is that regardless of what Veterans Day meant to me back in high school and college, now it is the most important holiday of the year to me --- and I don’t mean to diminish the importance of Christmas or slight Independence Day…but all the other holidays would be sad and painful days for all of us if it were not for the many millions of men and women who have fought, served, been wounded, spent time far away from home, and so many these veterans that died to keep these days ones that we’re free to celebrate.
And I just wanted to close out here with the words of Thomas’ mother, Mrs. Hepner who had the courage to write this to me shortly after her son was killed in action and lost to the war in Afghanistan, the son she had adored from the day he was born and somehow understood the depth of friendships her son had forged as a soldier…and as reading her words I realized that it gave her some measure of comfort through that agony. She wrote, “"What more can a mother ask for than knowing that he died in the arms of people who loved him?"
This is what it means to serve. It is about friendship, it is about normal people doing extraordinary things together, and it is about families who rally around one another with all the love they’ve got to get through the tough times. God bless Thomas Wilson, God bless his mother, God Bless all of our veterans, God Bless their families and friends, and may God Bless America on this solemn Veterans Day.
Thank you very much.