by Mike Berry
First Liberty Institute Director of Military Affairs
First Liberty Institute Director of Military Affairs and Marine Mike Berry shares his thoughts from the 2015 Memorial Day Ceremony at Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego, California. First Liberty Institute continues to defend this historic memorial against the ACLU’s efforts to tear it down . . .
This past Memorial Day, as I made my way to Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial, from the interstate I saw what appeared to be a small white structure atop a far away hill. I wasn’t certain, but my sense of geography told me that it must be the Memorial.
My first impression was that it appeared much smaller than I expected. After reading court pleadings from First Liberty Institute’s opposition who have brought a lawsuit to tear down the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial, I was led to believe the Memorial loomed so large as to cast every square foot of San Diego County under its shadow. To the contrary, it’s far from even being the dominant terrain feature visible from the highway.
“WE’RE GLAD YOU’RE HERE, MARINE”
Upon arriving at Mt. Soledad’s base, I was surprised at how many people were making their way up the mountain—some on foot, some in cars and on motorcycles. Some wore uniforms, some carried American flags, and some wore the unmistakable ball caps of veterans of past conflicts. I saw many “old-timers,” but I also saw a lot of youthful faces. The mood was respectful, reverent perhaps, but certainly not melancholy.
As I approached the Memorial, which by now—30 minutes before the start of the ceremony—was engulfed by people, I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be. It was my first ceremony, and I knew no one. But I happened to be wearing my Marine Corps lapel pin, which resulted in almost immediate handshakes and “we’re glad you’re here, Marine” welcomes. After five minutes of drifting and looking lost, I bumped into retired Marine Neil O’Connell, a Trustee of First Liberty Institute’s client, the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association (MSMA), who immediately ushered me to my seat. Then, just before the start of the ceremony, I felt a tap on my shoulder. The gentleman behind me saw my lapel and wanted to know where I served. We exchanged “war stories”—he from Vietnam, and I from Afghanistan. It’s amazing how the common bond of military service can quickly close the so-called generation gap.
With the precision expected of a military function, the ceremony commenced right on time. Despite overcast skies, a cool ocean breeze, and approximately 900 attendees, the ceremony began without issue or delay. A Marine color guard presented the Flag, there were the requisite welcoming remarks, and then . . . the National Anthem. The program listed Anisha Gwynn, daughter of the late MLB great, and longtime San Diego Padre, Tony Gwynn, as the soloist. As the emcee announced her name, there was an awkward silence. Anisha didn’t make it to the ceremony. The crowd rustled a bit. The emcee looked around, bewildered. Suddenly, without prompting, but with much gusto, the audience erupted in a stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There is hope for our nation yet! Mt. Soledad may have been the one place in the nation that day where every person in attendance knew the words to the National Anthem.
FOR THE LOVE OF THEIR COUNTRY . . . SOME GAVE ALL
The remainder of the ceremony took place without any further unexpected surprises. The guest of honor was LCDR and Mrs. Bill Krissoff, whose son, 1st Lt. Nathan Krissoff, was killed in Iraq in 2006. At the time, LCDR Krissoff was Dr. Krissoff, and had a thriving and lucrative medical practice in Truckee, CA (Dr. Krissoff was the orthopedic surgeon for the U.S. Ski Team). Upon learning of his son’s death, Dr. Krissoff, at the tender age of 61, convinced the Navy to allow him to join. So motivated was Dr. Krissoff that he personally pleaded with President Bush to allow him to join the Navy. We’ve all heard of sons following in their father’s footsteps. Here is a father who followed in his son’s! I thought: “Someone needs to write a book and tell this man’s story.”
During the ceremony, the keynote speaker, a Marine 2-Star General, asked veterans of each conflict to stand as he identified their conflict. When he mentioned Vietnam, he paused momentarily to express our nation’s gratitude, and he took the time to lament that they were often mistreated upon their return. Given the general’s age, it’s very likely he served in Vietnam, and perhaps recalls some of that treatment.
As the ceremony concluded, I had mixed emotions:
On the one hand, I swelled with pride as I stood with my fellow veterans. Some had traveled from as far as Maryland to be here (I met him). There were veterans from WWII to the current conflicts, and everything in between present. On the other hand, I felt the familiar twinge of guilt, questioning whether I had done enough for my nation, whether I still have anything left to offer. A recent statistic revealed that fewer than 1% of our nation’s population has served or is serving. That less-than 1% is cut from the same cloth as LCDR Krissoff.
The statistics reveal another important fact: people of faith continue to form the backbone of our nation’s military. We must now fight a legal battle against those who would create a military that is unwelcoming and hostile to them. They are the same forces who would tear down the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial.
DEFENDING MEMORIALS FOR THOSE WHO DIED DEFENDING OUR RIGHTS
After the ceremony, I met Bill Kellogg (Chairman Emeritus, Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial Board of Trustees). We chatted for about 10 minutes. As I chatted with Bill, we talked about what the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial represents. To us, it represents honoring and remembering our fallen heroes the other 363 days each year that aren’t Memorial Day or Veterans Day. If anti-religious groups succeed in tearing down the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial, or the Bladensburg, Maryland World War I Veterans Memorial, or any veterans memorial in our nation, it would be the modern-day equivalent of what happened to those Vietnam veterans.
As a veteran myself, seeing Mt Soledad Veterans Memorial torn down would feel like my service and sacrifice was spat upon. And for those veterans who actually were spat upon, I’m certain that it would reopen those wounds for many of them.
As Bill and I continued to talk, we also noticed a lone protester, holding a sign demanding that the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial Cross be torn down. Bill mentioned that this was the first protestor he could recall in the approximately 15 years he’s been involved in these ceremonies. But we both immediately agreed that those whose memories are enshrined at Mt. Soledad, including 1stLt Krissoff, died defending that man’s right to protest. What bitter irony. We are willing to sacrifice our blood and treasure so that a man has the right to protest. Yet the very thing he protests is the symbol of our sacrifice.
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About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.FirstLiberty.org.