I gave the following speech to students at Manchester/Essex Middle and High School Memorial Day 2017.
Firstly, I want to thank the students, teachers and administration, particularly Vice Principal Murphy, for the opportunity to come here and participate in your Memorial Day assembly.
I’ve come to talk to you today about Ranger James W Markwell of Cincinnati, Ohio. Ranger Markwell is my Memorial Day hero. That means that every Memorial Day, since 1990, I keep my promise to consider his sacrifice. Markwell is my chosen hero, you will have to find your own. By choosing a single name to remember, we personalize that sacrifice in a way that is not possible when applied to a larger group. So, choose your own, learn their story and contemplate their sacrifice every Memorial Day.
It wasn’t difficult for me to choose Ranger Markwell as my Memorial Day hero. That’s because I personally knew Ranger Markwell. I was with Ranger Markwell on a cold and wet December 19th, 1989 as we loaded C-141 jet aircraft bound for Panama. Our mission was to unseat a brutal sadistic dictator and restore democracy to that Central American country. Our specific mission was to parachute onto the airfields of Torrijos/Tucuman Airport and secure two separate runways so that additional forces could land. Throughout history, Rangers have relied on the element of surprise to compensate for our light equipment and numbers. This mission would be no different. The parachute jump would be at night, with no illumination and from only 450 feet above ground level. It would be the largest night time parachute assault since World War II.
Ranger Markwell wasn’t much older than the senior class here today. At the age of 20, he was full of optimism about his future. I outranked Ranger Markwell so we weren’t close friends. He had been the medic assigned to my platoon and as such I had a responsibility to check in with him from time to time. He told me that he joined the military to be a medic and wanted to be a Ranger Medic because he would receive the best trauma training the Army had to offer. He was also planning to use his GI Bill scholarship money to put himself through medical school when his enlistment was over. He would talk about his family back home and even a new girlfriend he was seeing in Savannah.
Just prior to boarding the aircraft bound for Panama, we were provided a steak and shrimp dinner, many jokingly referred to it as the “Last Supper.” As we sat around eating, Markwell engaged us in nervous conversation. We talked about his mission responsibilities once we hit the ground. We loaded ammunition, grenades, and high explosives into our packs. But mainly we occupied our minds with small talk rather than to think about the potential consequences of jumping out of an aircraft into enemy gunfire at low level.
This, however, wasn’t my first conversation with Markwell. A day earlier, back in our barracks while making invasion preparations, he overhead a few of us talking about leaving handwritten letters to our families. He asked about the letters and we explained that they were to be delivered as addressed if we died in combat. He emerged from his room about an hour later and had his own handwritten note. He asked me, and a few other Rangers, to read it and tell him what we thought, and we did. Here is a portion of what he wrote:
“I’ve never been afraid of death, but I know he is waiting at the corner. I’ve been trained to kill and to save, and so has everyone else. I am frightened what lays beyond the fog, and yet do not mourn for me. Revel in the life that I have died to give you. But most of all, don’t forget the Army was my choice. Something that I wanted to do. Remember I joined the Army to serve my country and ensure that you are free to do what you want and live your lives freely.”
My memory is that we all looked up at the same time, looked at each other, then to Markwell. I yelled, “Jeez Markwell those are some dark words!” We all laughed and I made him do 25 push-ups for being so serious and morbid. He got up and laughed as well saying, “do you really think it was too much?” I reassuringly said it was going to be fine and to get back to packing his gear. He put the letter down and packed as ordered.
Ranger James Markwell boarded a different aircraft then I did on December 19th. I remember seeing him as he waddled with over 100 pounds of gear onto the aircraft ramp.
At 1:03 am, 19 aircraft dropped over 800 Airborne Rangers onto a Panamanian Airport. During the ensuing battle, Ranger James Markwell would make, what we refer to as the ultimate sacrifice. He gave everything he had right there and then on that foreign runway, for people he never met and a country he never visited.
My unit stayed in Panama for another 2-months before being relieved and sent home. During that time, I witnessed the local people come out in large numbers to thank the American troops. This was not at all what we were expecting. There had been significant death and destruction inflicted on their country during the invasion. We could see the remains of burning buildings, damaged roadways, and we knew the death toll. Despite their suffering, they would meet us as we left the airfield, waving flags, bring us food and even provided us with vital information.
The memory of the grateful Panamanian people juxtaposed with the words James Markwell wrote to his loves ones is how I make sense of his sacrifice.
See, ideals and values are real things and Markwell recognized that more than the rest of us in December 1989. He knew that freedom from oppressive governments and dictators is a universal right worth fighting for even if it was for a stranger in another country. He also recognized that there are opportunities during our one life to be part of something greater than ourselves, to help others, to be willing to go the full measure in defending our values and human dignity.
James Markwell’s enduring legacy, like the legacy of all dead American soldiers, sailors, marines and airman, is that of a willingness to stand out ahead of our values and ideals. To see injustice and suffering and have the courage to take it on. To defend those who cannot defend themselves. To help those who cannot help themselves. Not stand-over people but instead beside them. This is what Markwell dedicated his early life to accomplish and in his death to promote.
I was asked to come here to speak with you today, to share a private story about an event almost 30 years old. I now have something to ask of everyone here. Find a way to be something bigger than yourself even if only for a brief period of your life. You don’t have to join the military, find your own way to contribute. Don’t do it just because it looks good on a college resume, do it because it is truly meaningful to you. Turn the abstract ideas of justice and compassion into objective action and commitment. Markwell gave his life in the services of others, when we serve others we validate that legacy.
I will finish with this.
When my unit returned to our home base in Savannah, Georgia we were told that Markwell’s “new” girlfriend wasn’t so new and that she had been pregnant. She would give birth to his daughter later that year. A daughter that will only know her dad through the values for which he gave his life.
We also discovered something else. Apparently, President George Bush Sr., during the 1990 State of the Union televised address, had read a portion of Markwell’s handwritten letter to the Congress.
President Bush recited the same words from the same letter, the one that we had given Markwell such a hard time over. But, this time, the President used Markwell’s words to inspire a nation. Who would of thought?
I hope you leave here today inspired to do good.