Pikes Peak Veterans Council, Memorial Day Speech

By Col. Thomas D. Boccardi NORAD and USNORTHCOM

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Special Thanks to the Pikes Peak Veterans Council & their 27 Veterans Organizations

Thank you for letting me be with you today. You know, I grew up and went to school not too far from here at Harrison High School. I often say that I learned to fight long before I came into the Army because I went to Harrison. So much has changed, though. I remember when the Mall of the Bluffs was on the northern edge town, way up there! Now, if you looked at the city map its dead center. I remember when the Powers Blvd ended at the old airport. It was a dirt road that we used to ride our BMX bikes across to get to Peterson Airforce Base bowling alley and gym.  Heck, I remember when the roads were good, here. Yes, much has changed.

So, I am a native-son of Colorado Springs and many years ago (1978 to be exact) my parents, like so many other military families, chose Colorado Springs as their last duty station so they could retire at the base of the Rocky Mountains. It could be argued that many folks choose Colorado Springs for the 3 x T's (Taxes, Traffic, Terrain). It’s always been a prized location; not only for the majestic beauty of the Front Range coupled with the 300+ days of sunshine, but also for its small town warmth and generosity.

For many years, Colorado Springs has been giving. After 9/11, Colorado Springs gave its sons, daughters, moms, dads, sisters and brothers to fight the Global War on Terror with tour after tour into Iraq and Afghanistan.  This city understands what others sometimes have a hard time grasping – when WE share the sacrifice WE become stronger. 

In fact, every time I go in uniform to COSTCO or I’m filling up with gas, somebody tells me “thank you for your service.” I would never characterize it as a praise or esteem; it’s more akin to “an understanding” -- an understanding of sacrifice. In a small effort – we share “Grace.” Grace is a wonderful notion; it is something that can be divinely given, and it can be simply-shared but it can also be easily lost.

·         One day Grace can be given by God, and then lost by Man.

·         Somedays you can find Grace in Soccer ball, other days it could be sharing a Name.

·         Sometimes it’s done through the act of sharing, but always, always Grace is found when giving.   

So, divinely-given, simply-shared, easily lost… then unexpectedly, it’s redeemed.

Recently, I was at an event in Washington DC and I was telling stories of my deployments to Iraq, and I used the sound-bite that I used often when speaking to Soldiers and Families – “the average person getting a Latte at Starbucks doesn’t understand what it takes to endure the unendurable, what it means to share sacrifice, or how important it is to belong to something bigger than oneself.”

 The only non-military person in our group provided me with some very interesting feedback. She said – “hey, I drink latte’s from Starbucks and your comment may be considered divisive.” This made me think.

Maybe, I wasn’t using the right words.

Maybe, my words weren’t saying anything.  

Maybe, my words were acrimonious.

Maybe, I lacked grace….  

Narrative - Today (Memorial Day) I’d like to share a few personal stories with you about my individual experiences with Grace. Grace given to me, Grace lost by me, Grace redeemed. 

 (Story 1) In my first story, I learned the meaning of the quote – “there but for the grace of God, go I”

On my first turn into Iraq 2003, a call came across the radio that we had a unit in contact. We didn’t know much, but we did know there were casualties. You could hear the angst in the voice on the other end of the radio. We jumped up and began running to our vehicles. Imagine if you will, firefighters grabbing their gear and sliding down the poles to the awaiting fire trucks. We grabbed our weapons, body armor and helmets (I actually grabbed someone else’s helmet)…and we raced to our vehicles to do something. For this iteration in Iraq, we had the old-school HMMWVs…think jeeps with canvas tents for shade and plastic zip-up windows. Some had machine guns mounted on top, but all of them had absolutely zero armor.

As we neared the contact site, I can still hear the voice on the other end of the radio. I could see smoke billowing from a kilometer away. As we drove closer, the flames grew and you could hear the sporadic “pop-pop” of gun fire and I was armed with a hand mike, a pair of binoculars and someone else’s helmet.

As we entered the scorched area where our fuel trucks had been hit, I felt an odd sensation. It was calm, quiet and cool. There is nothing cool about Iraq in August, but all was still – and then it happened. An Improvised Explosive Device exploded on our vehicle.  We were in the middle of a baited ambush. They duped us by blowing up the passing fuel trucks, but they really wanted to target first responders. The flame of the explosion was perfectly framed by my unzipped plastic window. I could feel the wind blow across my face. I could feel the pressure pushing on all angles of my body. Then, in the top of the canvas roof, just over the corner of my left ear, flew in a piece of shrapnel the size of a coffee cup. It easily pierced the canvas, bounced off my borrowed helmet and stuck in the vehicle between my right arm and right hip. How does that happen? It was as though something far greater put their hands out over our vehicle; cradling us; holding us. There by the Grace of God, go I…

Needless to say, we were locked in mortal gun fight for the next half hour. We pulled four (4) dead enemy fighters and one (1) severely wounded out of the high grass and placed them on the top of HMMWVs and we drove them to the casualty collection point. This was the same location where we were caring for our US wounded. As the MEDEVAC helicopters hovered over us to retrieve our wounded, I grabbed a dead enemy fighter off the hood of a HMMWV and tossed him to the side of the road to be placed into a body bag. I tossed him like a bag of dog food and in that callous act, I lost Grace.

So in a very short period, my life had been spared by the Grace of God and I was lucky enough to see my children and my wife again. What did I “share” for that gift? Anger…Entitlement…Bravado. In the blink of an eye, I lost Grace. I was ashamed.

(Story 2) During my second turn into Iraq, I learned more about the power of sharing grace.

It was a pitch dark and warm night in September. We had just lost a Soldier named Nick Madaras to an explosion and a couple hundred men were gathered on the edge of the Helipad awaiting a helicopter to pick-up Nick’s body and carry him home (we call this a Hero Flight). We all stood silently in a formation just off the edge of the helipad in a silent homage to our brother Nick. You could not see anyone, but you knew there was someone to your left and right, you could feel each other’s presence, so we all stood there quietly. Together.

We belonged to something bigger than ourselves; we belonged to each other.  When the aircraft finally arrived, I could see nothing, all I could hear was the aircraft cutting the air. I wasn’t sure when they brought Nick out to the flight line but I did see one small tail-light beacon fading away into the night’s sky as it lifted Nick away.

Fast forward a few years later, I met Nick’s parents – Bill and Shalini Madaras. 

When Nick was home for leave, he talked a lot about the Iraqi children and how they loved soccer, so he asked his mom and dad to send him a few soccer balls so he could share his passion and give something to the Iraqi children.  Nick never had the opportunity to put a single soccer ball into a child’s hand, but his grace continues through his mom and dad.

Bill and Shalini, along with many great Americans, decided to share in Nick’s love of soccer and children and they started a program of collecting soccer balls in Nick’s honor. “Kick For Nick” is the name of the nonprofit. They collect soccer balls (with Nick’s name on it), box it up and mail to Soldiers who personally distribute the fruits of Nick’s wonderful idea. Soldiers pass along Grace…Nick passes along grace. So much so those over 50,000 soccer balls have been distributed over 39 countries. I can offer that these are places that can only be touched by the extraordinary reach of our Service Members.

Bill and Shalini are two of the most special people I had ever met. Not just by their personal sacrifice, but by their living example of charity. Not only do they honor Nick, they honor community. They ensure no Soldier, no child goes unloved. Maybe it's through Nick's spirit, but I do know that Nick's parents are the best examples of good will and compassion. Bill and Shalini refuse to let Nick’s memory simply drift off into the night. They’ve already given their son, which is the most precious of gifts, yet they still give to this day. Bill and Shalini are examples of great, compassionate citizens.

The short moments I shared with others on the edge of helipad, pale in comparison to boundless Grace that Bill and Shalini share every day. I made sure that when I stepped into the towns of Baqubah, Iraq or Tarmiya, Iraq or even into the isolated, ungoverned regions of Honduras…I made sure that I passed along Nick’s Grace in the form of a soccer ball. I am proud to have known Nick, Bill and Shalini…gosh, I wish I could be more like them!

(Story 3) I learned about Grace at home, too. For me, it wasn’t particular to combat.

One summer, I was between change of station moves (1/3 of military families move every summer), I was shipping my vehicle back to the states. My wife was with me for a ride back to the hotel. It was our last full day on the Hawaiian Islands and the only thing slower than shipping your vehicle overseas is sitting in a DMV. Mind-boggling boredom came over me, almost a frustration that I was spending my last hours on the island waiting for my name to be called. As I looked across a bench of chairs, I saw a young woman sitting with two beautiful little girls. I was struck by two things: (1) this was a terrible place to sit wait for hours with kids, (2) and she was wearing a small black metallic bangle.

Not unlike the bracelets worn by our soldiers remembering the loss of a fallen comrade, so maybe she was a Solider. I had one on too. So, I leaned over and asked…”who is this important Soldier that you remember so honorably.”…and the young woman replied – “He IS my husband.”

Now, I’ve lost 20 of my brothers over the last 15 years…I’ve prayed and cried at all of their memorial services. For some of them, I was there when they left this earth. You could say after some time, I knew how to prepare my emotions and protect my reactions, in the case of Tanya Heffelfinger who was the beloved spouse of 29yo CWO Mathew C. Heffelfinger of Kimberly, Idaho – I was not ready.

CWO Heffelfinger was assigned to 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry when he crashed in his OH-58D near Tikrit, Iraq. It was not her reply of who she was remembering that shook me so deeply. It was the next question she asked…”Who is yours that you honor.”

It wasn’t about her profound loss; the loss of a husband, the father of her children, her best friend. Just like the ancient Spartan tale - she did not dwell; she did not give way; she did not break. She shared in what we had in common – a Loss. Certainly, her loss was more profound, more personal than that of a combat commander, right?  We shared – the names of our losses. We shared Grace.

(Story 4) I’m going to attempt to get through this final story, so bear with me…

During my last journey to Iraq, I commanded the Golden Dragons of the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment. In late March 2008, a Shi'a uprising in Baghdad's Sadr City (a slum of about 2.5 million people) attempted to unseat Government of Iraq by raining a barrage of rockets into the “Green Zone.” The violence was significant and the urban fighting was downright tough. I had cross-attached our best Stryker company led by a warfighter and a wonderful boy named - Captain Logan Veath. Logan would be decorated twice for his valor during this fight; he had his vehicle shot out from under him.  It was an amazing effort to behold, they continued to push forward, house to house, T-Wall by T-Wall and Logan and his Bushmaster Company marched forward securing key enemy rocket-launch sites.

I remember the call from Dan Barnett, commander of the sister battalion, then responsible for Logan and Bushmaster Company – “Tommy, hey brother, Bushmaster was in a bad ambush and we are evac’ing one of your boys now.” That boy was – SGT Kyle Daggett. An extremely well respected Airborne Ranger. SGT Daggett was a physical specimen. For God’s sake, when we were on block leave prior to our deployment, SGT Daggett was finishing Ranger School. I was mad, I was sad, I was helpless. The only thing I said to Dan was – “where is he going Baghdad or Balad?” …I regret that.

Something else I regret…I spun up my Security Patrol to travel an hour north to meet SGT Dagget at the Balad Hospital. I carried a Purple Heart and an attitude. I was incensed. Sound familiar? As I entered into the ER, I immediately saw him. The invincible, cut-from-iron SGT Daggett barely filled a small bed. Kyle was just a boy. His body had dressings along his left-side torso where he took a lot of RPG damage and his right side was not wrapped but you could see where the fragments had peppered his young, tender skin. His head was completely wrapped-up. It almost resembled an old Civil War re-enactment bandaging. The only exposed recognizable part of his face was his nose. The ER Doc made it clear that Kyle was not in a good place.

There I was standing alone over Kyle’s bed with a Purple Heart in hand. He was my soldier and I was going to pin his Purple Heart on. Was this why I was short with Dan? Was this why I was incensed? Because I had to be the one who pinned on a $2 medal?

I was ashamed; deeply ashamed. Certainly, I lacked Grace. Then, in a triumphant moment of Grace, I unceremoniously laid the Purple Heart at his feet, reached over his body and kissed him on his nose. It was warm. It reminded me of when my youngest refused to give us kisses before bed but would rub noses. It is very likely, Kyle never knew I was even there.

Kyle held on for 14 days, two weeks…I did mention he was part iron, part granite. He made it as far as Halifax, Nova Scotia during his evacuation back to the states. The day that Kyle passed, I spoke to his dad and mom (Jack and Colleen) who were bedside in Halifax. I let them both know how sorry I was for not bringing their boy back the way they’d given him to me.  It was emotional. I told them how bad I felt at the hospital and that all I could do was kiss him on his nose. I was helpless and I wept. Jack Daggett reached through the phone grabbed me and said – “Colonel, this is not your fault. I know you did a lot to prepare your boys for war. Kyle spoke to me about the great commander he had.” At this point, I was overcome by emotion. And if Grace hadn’t already filled my soul, Colleen said – “you know I used to kiss Kyle on the nose every morning before he went to school, so when you kissed him on his nose, that’s what I would have done.”

And there it was…just like that…Grace lost, Grace redeemed.  

(Closure) I’ve been telling you war stories for nearly 20 min, as I close, I’d offer this personal reflection-

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen God’s Grace and it wasn’t form of physical protection from almost certain death – it came from:

·         It came from…a Soccer Ball with boy’s name on it

·         It came from…a Black bracelet with husband and father’s name on it

·         It came from...a conversation with Mom and Dad about their son

Today, on Memorial Day, many folks across this country will celebrate the Holiday with a BBQ and Beer…heck, I am one of those guys. Since less than 1% has served, the average person getting a latte at Starbucks may not have the same personal connection to “the sacrifice” we acknowledge on Memorial Day, but many of them are grateful.

We all have these stories. We all know loss, BUT WE ALL KNOW HOW TO GIVE. How to share. How to SHARE GRACE. It is the Grace we passed between us that pick’s us up and keeps us driving on.

Did I mention how grateful I was of your Service? I AM VERY GRATEFUL.

Thank You.