It’s nearing that time of year when I’m wanted at various venues around the country to make speeches or simply show up and glad hand as a relatively high-profile veteran. There are more invitations to speak at Marine Corps Birthday celebrations, Veterans’ Day commemorations and other patriotic events than I can accept, at least until someone perfects cloning. It’s a time when I’m more torn and twisted than normal. I’m torn because I really want to accept all of these invitations and I’m twisted because I can’t help thinking I don’t deserve them.
As a Marine who has attended more than half a hundred service birthday celebrations around the world, I understand the concern that goes into getting a good speaker that will hopefully keep the Marines and their families from doing face-plants into their dinner plates. And I’ve been an antsy audience member at any number of patriotic or memorial gatherings where the speaker blathered or droned to the extent that I found myself glassy-eyed and drooling. I can’t be that guy. It seems like a cheat for people who are – at least initially – politely willing to listen to what I have to say. When I select the few invitations I can squeeze into a hectic schedule, the challenge is not to take the lazy route, dust off some previous topic and simply recycle well-worn clichés. So, I do my research and spend the necessary time parked computer-side to come up with something new and different to say that has relevance to my audience. Depending on the occasion, the audience and their motivation for inviting me in the first place, it’s usually a combination of thoughts I have from the perspective of a combat veteran and some sort of showbiz insider.
Of course those two elements of my situation—veteran status and high public profile—often cross and combine which is mostly the reason the invitations keep coming every year. I get that. It’s not so much that I’m a brilliant orator as it is that I’m a guy the audience has seen in movies or TV shows who is also a patriot with a military background. The draw is getting to see that guy in person, decked out in a dress uniform that still fits, and the price of admission is listening to him speak. It’s a bonus when the guy actually has something interesting to say. I do my best to keep people from staring at the clock or sneaking out to the bar but it takes some serious reflection in the preparation.
Going through the process of speech-writing or note-making for these occasions is a humbling exercise. Before the first program is opened on my computer or the first key struck, I’m forced to deal with thoughts about why I’m writing remarks for public consumption. Why the hell would anyone care about what I have to say? How did I become the “duty veteran” who is asked in some way to represent millions of veterans with much more experience, insight and expertise than I will ever have? Does my status as a writer, actor and director in one of the world’s least significant professions somehow make what I have to say important or interesting? The answer to the first two questions is I don’t know. Pondering the third leads me to some serious introspection as I’m writing.
What always comes to mind early is a now often repeated comment by the legendary Major Dick Winters of “Band of Brothers” fame who responded to a question from a grandchild who asked him if he was a hero in World War II. “No,” Winters responded quietly, “but I served in a unit of heroes.” That’s how I feel about the thousands of unsung and under-appreciated people I served with in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere in the world during my career in military uniform. And those are the great people living and dead that I think about when I’m preparing to speak in public. Because of their service and sacrifice, I’m here today and I like to imagine myself speaking for them. I keep my messages simple as I think they would speak in straight-forward language to say they are proud to have served and expect no great reward for having done so. They did what they did because they believed it was the right thing to do and high-flown sentiments are not a big part of that. They braved discomfort in training and death in combat because someone had to step up and most of them sincerely believed that should not be someone else when service to the nation was required. With those thoughts in mind, the speech is usually quickly completed.
The delivery part is easiest. Somewhere in every audience, I manage to find a few veterans who have critical, expectant eyeballs locked on me. I speak to them and—if I’m doing it right—for them. As they have throughout my career in and out of uniform, those heroes guide and mentor me. It’s just a matter of saying what they would say if they had the opportunities I’m honored to have every year around this time.