Good morning / Buenos días
It is truly an honor for me, as America’s ambassador to Panama, and as a Marine veteran, to join you here on this Memorial Day.
For over one hundred years, Americans and Panamanians have gathered here on this day to celebrate the proud tradition of uniformed service in the United States military;
And to say prayers of remembrance and gratitude, especially for those young souls who perished in war so that we might thrive in peace.
I recall standing on this hallowed ground – the Corozal Cemetery – with a former ambassador and friend, Bill Eaton, back in 2007.
I had come to Panama for a short work visit that happened to coincide with Memorial Day. Bill apologized at breakfast that he wouldn’t be able to join me at some of my morning meetings with officials in the Torrijos administration because he “had a solemn duty to perform.”
I knew that I did as well, and so we scratched my morning agenda, and came to pay our fitting tribute, just as we are all doing today.
You know, when I finished college, I became a Marine Corps helicopter pilot, a service that I fully embraced, truly loved, and one that has returned more to me than I ever gave it.
I learned first-hand both the high honor and grave responsibility of wearing the uniform, like my father and grandfather before me.
And like most men and women who serve in the Armed Forces, there came a moment in my life when I hung up my Dress Blues, became a civilian, raised two boys with my wonderful wife, Cherie, and took on new professional challenges.
Like many of you here, I am among the luckiest of the lucky.
However, some never even had the chance to be lucky.
Above all, it is those men and women who we remember and honor today.
In 1868, Major General John Logan, head of the Civil War veterans group called the Grand Army of the Republic, designated May 30th as a day for “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”
Decoration Day, we called it back then, and it began modestly.
“No form of ceremony is prescribed,” Logan wrote, “but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
Logan picked May 30 precisely because it marked no particular turning point or major battle of the Civil War. They wanted to remember all of the fallen, blue AND gray.
And that is what we do today, 148 years later. This is our “fitting service and testimonial of respect.”
On that first Decoration Day, after the speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphanage and members of the Grand Army of the Republic reverently placed flowers on the graves of the fallen.
Much like the Boy Scouts and many other volunteers have done here today at Corozal, with American and Panamanian flags at each grave.
As an old Eagle Scout who also participated in this beautiful tradition, I want to thank the scouts and volunteers for keeping General Logan’s spirit alive.
I’m told that this is a larger crowd than usual this year; that’s wonderful to see.
So I also want to thank each and everyone one of you in attendance.
You’ve come out as individuals; you’ve come out as members of Veterans organizations; as family members of those interred here; and some of you represent other diplomatic missions, France, Great Britain, Canada and Trinidad & Tobago among you.
You are all welcome, and it is fitting and just that we take the time to render our tribute together at Corozal.
The day after I arrived in Panama on February 4, the first place I went was to the Embassy. The second: right here.
I want to thank mi comadre boricua, Melanie Resto, and the American Battlefield Monument Commission, for their dedication to keeping Corozal cemetery worthy of those who rest here.
As most of you know, many of the 5,493 souls laid to rest in Corozal played a part in the construction, the operation, or the protection and defense of the Panama Canal.
I wonder if they could they have imagined that, in just a few weeks, Panama will inaugurate an impressive continuation of their legacy – new locks, a broader and deeper channel, a modernized Canal for a new era.
What a fitting testament to their original and unique legacy.
Y como Panamá, Corozal es un punto de coyuntura física y metafísica, un lugar donde descansan los restos mortales de hombres, mujeres, y niños de más de 70 países.
Ellos y éstas lápidas nos recuerdan la diversidad de talento que nació o emigró a Panamá para transformar el sueño de un canal en una realidad.
Estas tumbas son emblemáticas del sudor, el sufrimiento, y el sacrificio inevitables cuando un pequeño país se atreve a soñar en grande.
Pero esto es precisamente lo que el Panamá de hoy está haciendo, y al hacerlo, está honrando el espíritu de los almas enterradas aquí en Corozal.
Buried here, too, are members from all branches of military service, and the fallen from all conflicts from the U.S. Civil War to the present: which include the Spanish-American War; the Great War, World War I; World War 2; Korea; Vietnam; the Beirut bombings; the Iraq War.
That is a solemn and proud legacy.
And as I said earlier, many of their family and friends are here with us today. You are the living link to the past.
You remember their faces. You know their stories.
And in telling their stories, we honor them; we steel ourselves for the unknown threats and challenges of the future; and we contribute to the continuing legacy of our beloved country – the United States of America.
I especially want to express my special thanks and respect all those veterans who are with us this morning.
And there is one in particular who deserves mention for keeping this flame alive as long as he has. World War II veteran, Arthur Kerr, 91 years young. (Applause).
I said that by telling the stories of those veterans who have gone before us, we keep them alive in us. So I want to end by telling you just one.
Capt. Kenneth “The Grinch” Hill was a Marine Cobra Attack pilot who died in the Persian Gulf during Operation Praying Mantis, in April of 1988.
During a moonless, ink-black night, the Grinch and his co-pilot,
Steve “Hook” Leslie, launched from the USS Wainwright. They were patrolling in support of Kuwaiti tanker ships that had been re-flagged in order to keep Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Ayatollah’s Iran from interrupting the flow of oil flowing through the straits of Hormuz that the West so desperately needed back then.
Few things in this world say “back off” more effectively than a pair of AH-1Whiskey model Cobra gunships.
During the mission, Grinch’s bird was being aggressively tracked by the enemy and reported a “locked-on” signal, which meant that Iranian surface-to-air missile radar was painting them – a likely indication that a missile wasn’t far behind.
The after action report showed that Grinch and Capt. Leslie took appropriate evasive actions, as they had been trained to do, but they were flying so low over the water that the aircraft clipped the surface and crashed.
Grinch – and we called him that because the guy was the spitting image of Dr. Seuss’ Grinch Who Stole Christmas – was 7-8 years older than the rest of us. Before joining the Marines, he played bass guitar in a rock ‘n roll band and tucked his ponytail into his shirt pocket. He was one of the best poker and pinochle players I ever met.
He chain smoked Marlboros, taught me to drink bourbon, and spoke with a slow, syrupy Carolina drawl that was a product of both.
He had a sarcastic wit that was as sharp as his Marine k-bar. He was once told he should stop smoking so much and replied, “Do you know what the definition of an optimist is? A Cobra pilot who thinks he’s gonna die of lung cancer.”
My buddy, the Grinch, was born with a big heart. He shared it without reserve, bringing his trademark gravelly laugh and his warrior’s uncompromising integrity to everything he did.
He left behind a wife, Karen, and little son, Andy, with whom I lost touch over the years. But I’ve never forgotten them.
So today, Grinch, my prayer is one of thanks, for the chance I had to know you, my Marine brother;
As well, I pray for your wife and boy, now a young man, who live daily with the pain of your loss.
Today, Grinch, here in Corozal Cemetery, in Panama, with my new friends and colleagues, we honor your memory.
Semper fidelis – Thank you – God Bless – and, in honor of all those who have served and sacrificed, have a Happy Memorial Day.
See pictures of the Memorial Day event.