Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo / The unity we have achieved since the Civil War should not be taken for granted

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Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, commandant of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., last weekend gave the keynote address at the 75th anniversary commemoration of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial in Gettysburg, during which members of the Sons of the Union Veterans and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans laid wreaths. This article is adapted from Gen. Cucolo's address.

I'm just another general and any of my peers could do a better job today. Regardless, I am very thankful you asked a soldier to speak.

I am thankful you asked a soldier because we soldiers know the great value of commemorations, those forcing functions that cause us to pause from our busy and distracting schedules and think about past sacrifices, about the honor associated with actively engaging in the effort to make a wrong right and, of course, about the horrible cost of armed conflict.

Today I represent the armed forces who are the legacy of your ancestors, you sons of Union and Confederate veterans. Our heritage stems from those who were supremely motivated to raise this monument, for it is a monument to both sacrifice and to reconciliation. As one who has worn the uniform of a U.S. soldier for more than three decades, I very personally comprehend both concepts -- sacrifice and reconciliation.

First, sacrifice.

Sons of veterans, your ancestors had the unique and powerful bond of combat experience. I cannot adequately describe these family-like bonds. Let me try by relating a personal story.

Three years ago at this time, I was in the middle of a tour in Iraq. I had the honor of commanding a division. And I lost soldiers -- killed and wounded.

When there are casualties, they are taken to a field hospital. There they are either stabilized and prepared for further transport out of the combat zone to more highly capable medical facilities or, should life-saving measures fail, their remains are carefully but expeditiously prepared for transport back to the United States.

When a soldier is lost and if conditions allow at the field hospital, those in the chain of command have a quiet moment to bid their soldier farewell. The doctors and chaplain come out of the prep area and say, "You may go in now, sir."

I always let my brigade or battalion commanders go before me if they were on the scene. As they came out after their moments, we would exchange silent glances as we passed each other in the darkness -- most of my losses occurred during nighttime action, it seemed. This look was usually a strange combination of bitter sadness and grim resolve.

Then I would go in, alone, to the dimly lit room and stand next to the body or bodies of my soldiers. If the prep and their injuries allowed it, I could look at their faces, their eyes closed, peaceful looking. There might be the hum of a generator outside or the blades turning on a nearby helicopter, but somehow those moments seemed awfully quiet.

While division command is an incredible honor, one of the downsides is that it is difficult to know all 21,000 of your soldiers. Of the casualties I speak of, I knew only a few of them well. But because of that bond, that bond of combat, the sense of loss I felt for each of them was immense.

Standing there next to my soldiers, I felt responsibility and I felt guilt. I said a prayer -- for them and for their families and loved ones. I also might have a brief moment where the dark part of my heart got the better of me and I thought about what I wanted to do to those who had caused my soldiers' deaths, but that was usually quickly replaced by determination ...

We would continue our mission and not let them down.

We would make them proud of us.

We would ensure their sacrifice was not in vain.

We would never forget them.

That is why most of us in uniform who have lost soldiers can name them. Or we have little cards close by with their names and the dates, location and circumstances of their loss. Or we wear a memorial bracelet -- mine reminds me every day of an incredible young sergeant. One reason I wear it is to have someone ask, "Pardon me, what's that on your wrist?" Then I get to tell Sgt. Sam Kelsey's story one more time. And his memory lives on.

Those powerful memories mark you. But they motivate you, too -- to build and sustain places like this beautiful memorial, lest we forget.

Sons of Union and Confederate veterans -- I am so thankful you are still committed to ensuring that the great sacrifice borne by their generation is not only recalled, but also used as a guidepost so that part of our history, that sacrifice, does not repeat itself.

Which brings me to reconciliation ...

Supported by the commitment exemplified by this eternal light, our country has not seen civil war since the peace of 1865. Those four years were enough destruction, death and intangible loss to mark us as a people. So scarring was the experience, the healing was incredibly difficult and slow.

But veterans and the sons of veterans led by example. What a message: If those who fought each other and carried the searing memories of the abject carnage of that war could clasp hands and forgive, then unite for a common purpose, why can't we all?

This is yet another reason I am grateful you asked a soldier to speak today. You see, no currently or recently serving soldier I know takes this reconciliation of ours for granted.

I'll bet most Americans don't think about it, but my brothers and sisters in uniform have seen much of civil war -- personally, in all its brutality. I have seen it in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now, somewhere out there in front of me may be an academic challenge to that statement: "Apparently the general does not know the difference between sectarian violence and civil war."

Well, stand with me in that mud or that sand or on that city street with my fellow soldiers and see what war within a nation does to people who once were neighbors and friends, members of different religious or ethnic groups living happily side by side for years, working side by side, intermarried, until some power-hungry person or group decided to highlight some meaningless difference and incite violence between regions or among factions to get what they want.

These are places where truth has a price and justice goes to the highest bidder -- or the better armed. These are places where there is senseless and vicious violence, where good people live in fear, often looking to us American soldiers as the hope for their futures.

We've seen these things and hope and pray -- as you do, sons of Union and Confederate veterans -- that they never come back to our land.

Unfortunately, monuments alone -- as beautiful and as meaningful as they are -- cannot prevent war. But for what it is worth, as a representative of the Americans who have seen late 20th century and early 21st century versions of civil war up close, I offer that this monument and those who are dedicated to its preservation serve two incredibly important purposes:

First, you show others throughout the world what is possible with forgiveness, reconciliation. You light the darkness of ignorance and show the world that it can be done, that it has been done.

Second, you remind us here in the United States of the terrible cost of short-sighted polarization, the dangerous slow road of creeping factionalism, that, like some strange social decay, can divide a united people over time. May that never happen to us again.

In closing, let me return to that tough moment saying farewell to my fallen. Each time I walked out of a field hospital and made that lonely trek back to my command post, I was left wondering if I was personally worthy of my soldier's sacrifice -- and then recommitted myself to making my life worthy of it.

I would ask you all today, during this special moment in this very special place that honors such sacrifice, to do the same. Live a life worthy of the sacrifices of those who have gone before us -- and of those willing to go for us now -- so that our freedom, and the freedoms of others, might survive.

Lest we forget.

Thank you for listening.



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