On trips to my Uncle’s house during the 1980’s, I entertained myself by banging the keys of a piano tucked in a dark room of his Elsberry, Missouri home. A saber rested above the keys with the inscription “Denis W. Galloway”.
“What is this sword?,” I vaguely remember asking my mom. “It was my cousin Denis’s saber from West Point, he died in Vietnam” my mom explained. “West Point, huh.” I had no idea what West Point was or why they had sabers. I heard story’s about Denis, knew he died before I was born, but I didn’t know much else. But, the saber got me curious.
My friends and I played four games growing up in Missouri: baseball, basketball, football and war. Early on, we all dreamed of playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, but ability, or lack there of, ruled out the possibility of a professional baseball career quite early. Good hands and a jump shot were also not going to be enough to overcome my lack of size and speed. By middle school, I’d figured out sports would not be my profession, thus “war” became a career alternative.
Pride in military service runs deep in middle America and the stories of family, friends and neighbors piqued my interest. I’d sit silently listening to my grandfather’s Marine Corps tales about firing guns at Japanese Zeros aboard the U.S.S. Boston during World War II. Relatives and neighbors would describe their tours in the jungles of Vietnam. Far off lands, great adventures, off duty hijinks, shooting GUNS — what more could young boys want?
When not playing sports, we’d build forts in the cornfield behind my house, fire BB guns in the woods and ambush each other in the creek. We’d dress in any old military and hunting garb we could find; fight imaginary “Russians” in simulated battles like we saw in the movie Red Dawn. (Strangely ironic based on recent foreign policy turns.)
Mandatory elementary school reading led me to consume every book in the library on World War II and the Civil War. I briefly flirted with the idea of becoming an Air Force pilot. The Right Stuff played on a continuous loop during the 1980s and McDonnell Douglas flew F-15 Eagles and F-18 Hornets along the river valleys outside of St. Louis further heightening my new obsession. This led me to memorize the type and specifications of every combat aircraft from World War II to present day. A failed vision test revealed I’d be an unlikely candidate for flight school and so I started exploring other alternatives.
The story of Denis surfaced again in family conversations during this time. I asked more questions. I learned that Denis graduated from West Point in 1964. He was a combat engineer and had served in the 101st Airborne Division. I returned to study, reading The Long Gray Line by Rick Atkinson who described the experience of the West Point class of 1966 before, during and after the Vietnam conflict. Not long after completing that story, I stumbled across a book about “U.S. Army Rangers” at the town library. Rangers would spend days and weeks out in the woods, surviving off the land, jumping out of airplanes, sneaking behind enemy lines. These tales of suffering don’t conjure up excitement today, but they were highly appealing to me during my teens. I was hooked. I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up.
“I’m going to be an Airborne Ranger and a platoon leader in the 101st Airborne Division,” I told my mom strolling into the family kitchen sometime around the 8th or 9th grade. She said, “OK, sure,” or something to that effect, probably not taking the teenage conversation too serious.
In the summer of 1996, almost thirty years after Denis died in Vietnam, I signed in as a platoon leader at the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I’d just completed airborne and ranger school, and would start an amazing journey in service to my country. They say the best recruiter of a Marine is a former Marine and the best recruiter of a cadet is a former cadet. A saber laying on a piano, belonging to a veteran I never met, provided a spark that led to one of the best decisions of my life: to be a U.S. Army officer.
I often receive thanks from family, friends and co-workers on Veteran’s Day. Thank you to those that remember America’s veterans, but I’d like to take it in a slightly different direction. For me, I’d like to instead say:
- Thanks to my country for allowing me to serve, for the opportunity to travel to dozens of countries and see the world from a range of perspectives.
- Thanks to my family and friends who’ve supported servicemembers and I on countless deployments over the last fifteen years. They’ve received little or no recognition from the American public.
- Thanks to the taxpayers for providing me with a West Point education; where I encountered the greatest cohort of American citizens ever assembled; men and women of all races, ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds, members of the “Long Gray Line”, the greatest friends one could ever have.
- Thanks to the soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 2–327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division and Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division for the greatest professional experience of my life. You allowed me to fail and learn. You never waned in your support.
- Thanks to the members of the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement community who are often hidden, unsung and overlooked as they work tirelessly fighting our nation’s wars alongside our service members and veterans.
- Thanks to those still fighting for the care and benefits of our veterans.
- Thanks to those that mentored me along my journey — before, during and after my time in the military.
- Thanks to those that served and died over the last fifteen years fighting in the War On Terror, it’s time we honored them properly, the way we have veterans from previous conflicts.
- Thanks to those future veterans serving today on the frontlines in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan and a host of other countries. Most deployed today will have been away from home and in danger many times over. The American public has largely forgotten your enduring sacrifice, but your fellow veterans have not.
Today, fifty years after the death of Denis Galloway, I hiked Popolopen Torne which looms just over the West Point military reservation boundary in New York. I added another tribute rock to the “Trail of the Fallen” for Denis Galloway — a great memorial created by an Eagle Scout project. Its one of the best views in America and a fitting tribute to all who’ve served their country. Thank you Denis Galloway for paying the ultimate sacrifice for your country and for providing the spark for my service.
In closing, politicians have and will always stoke fear and make promises to curry votes. Promises made by those on a quest for power often lead good men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces into peril for reasons that later prove dubious. Over the past year, friends and I have laid four rocks for fallen friends and family that died in Iraq and Vietnam. History has yet to adequately explain why these men had to pay the ultimate sacrifice on these battlefields. I’ll continue to fight for my country, defend the American people against all enemies foreign and domestic, push to preserve the principles of democracy at home and abroad, and will support to the end America’s service members and veterans. I hope our leaders moving forward will make sure that our nation’s military serves in the pursuit of our country’s principles and not their personal power.
For those that want to honor veterans and support those in uniform today, I ask that you hold those you elected and their bureaucrats accountable for the military commitments they make. Let’s make sure their use of the military truly serves American interests, that we don’t send our heroes to die in service of the egos of lesser men. Remember our veterans, remember what was said about our veterans, and hold the feet to the fire of those that recklessly stoke the flame. I hope there are no new rocks to lay on the “Trail Of The Fallen” anytime soon.