Campus wide, College of Nursing, Faculty

Happy Memorial Day?

By Vicki Ball | May 27, 2024

Just a day or so ago, as I was leaving the grocery store, one of the cashiers kindly and, I’m sure, with good intentions, thanked me for shopping with them and casually said to me, “And Happy Memorial Day!” I paused for a minute, considering if I had the time, the patience or the emotional energy to explain to the young man what Memorial Day was really about.

Realizing that I had none of those–time, patience, or emotional energy- at that moment, I simply said, “thank you,” and quietly left. “Happy” Memorial Day? The more I considered the absent-minded greeting, the more I realized there are those who view this day as simply a 3-day holiday weekend. To some, it’s a day of gathering with family and friends, cooking out, adorning themselves with red, white, and blue, and just generally enjoying a day off of work if they can. Because you are here this morning, I know you realize that Memorial Day is much more than cookouts and a day off work. We are all here today to pause and remember, to look out across this final resting place of thousands of known and unknown soldiers, to mourn their loss, to feel the weight of their sacrifice, to honor their bravery.

As American citizens, it is our duty, I believe, to take the time to remember them and hold them in our thoughts if even just for a few moments on this sacred day, and on this sacred ground. John F. Kennedy once said, “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it.” And Tennesseans have always paid it. I’m a South Carolina girl, but I married a TN boy, and today, I want to share some statistics with you about the people just from TN who lost their lives in previous wars:

  • approximately 3,000 Tennesseans died during the Civil War (1861-1865)
  • approximately 3,400 died during WWI (1914-1918)
  • approximately 7,500 died during WWII (1939-1945)
  • approximately 900 died during the Korean War (1950-1953)
  • 1,295 died during the Vietnam War (1955-1975)
  • 158 died during the numerous Wars in the Middle East (1990-2021)

Those are a lot of numbers, but we know they are not just numbers. They are family members and friends whose legacy of duty, honor, and country live on in our hearts.

As a young person, I never imagined that I would have the privilege to serve my country. Despite growing up in a family of military service members (my grandfather, dad, and brother), I never considered that life for myself. I just wanted to graduate college and become a registered nurse.

But in 1987, my senior year at Clemson, I happened to walk by an Air Force nurse recruiter’s table at a student nurses association conference. As a senior nursing student about to be launched into the world of healthcare on my own, I was uncertain of my future. The Air Force recruiter told me about a 5-month internship for new graduate nurses that sounded interesting. Having never lived anywhere but South Carolina, I didn’t know if the Air Force was right for me. The internship required a competitive application process, so I wasn’t sure I would even get accepted, and truthfully, I was uncertain if military service was what I was called to do.

I can remember making a deal with God one night in my dorm room. My prayer went something like this: Lord, if you want me in the Air Force, I have three conditions. I don’t want to begin my service until the last week in July (you see, I already had a job at a children’s camp for the summer); I only want to go in if I get accepted into the medical-surgical nurse internship; and I only want to go in if I get my first choice of assignments, which was Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. (near New Orleans). I went to bed after my conditions were laid out to God, thinking, “All three of those things will never happen.” That was one of my first lessons in never underestimating the power of God’s plan for my life! On July 29th, 1987, I was on my way to my first assignment-Keesler Air Force Base as a 2nd Lieutenant and a nurse intern in medical-surgical nursing.

I anticipated my stay in the Air Force to last a mere 3 years, after which I’d go back to what I’d originally planned for my life – working as an RN in a civilian hospital. They say that if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans. I’m quite certain He did laugh, because sometime during that initial assignment, I realized that serving in the military was not about me or my plans. Rather, I felt called to a life of caring for those who were laying their lives on the line every single day for our country.

Through various assignments over 23 years, I learned what commitment, honor, integrity, duty, and service looked like. I saw these values in the faces of the servicemen and women I cared for. I discovered that the values I’d learned as a child, ingrained in me through people like you, found fertile ground in the soil of military life and became an inseparable part of my DNA.

I’ve often pondered what motivates other people to join the military. I realize that some had the military life thrust upon them through the draft, and were in a sense, “voluntold” to join up or else, while some voluntarily took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Yet when we put on the uniform, you can’t tell the difference between those two. It’s the same love for America that binds us together in solidarity and fuels our purpose to serve.

I retired from the Air Force in 2010, and I now have the opportunity to teach nursing students how to become RNs. One of the classes that I teach is nursing leadership, and it’s interesting to me that the “new” philosophy of leadership in business and healthcare is the servant leadership model–in other words, putting the needs of those we supervise ahead of our own needs.

This type of leadership is exactly what the military is founded upon; in fact, did you know that the word “sergeant” is derived from a French word for “servant?” I’m reminded of a Bible verse you may be familiar with: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NIV). While I was deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was privileged to care for service members who were injured in the line of duty. They could be flat on their backs with serious, life-threatening injuries, and the first questions they would ask me from their hospital bed were, “When can I get back to my unit? When can I get back to my buddies? I have to get back to the mission.”

This is what I would call uncommon valor.

My experience could be characterized in much the same way as the late entertainer, Bob Hope, recounted his experience during numerous USO tours: “I saw your sons and your husbands, your brothers and your sweethearts. I saw how they worked, played, fought, and lived. I saw some of them die. I saw more courage, more good humor in the face of discomfort, more love in an era of hate, and more devotion to duty than could exist under tyranny.”

Throughout my career, I met countless veterans whose courage and spirit inspired me to be a better officer. One of those veterans was Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. I was assigned to his office during a special military assignment in 2005, and I learned of his service the Senator Inouye was a Japanese American, and just a 17 year-old boy when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. He served as a medical volunteer caring for the wounded following the attack, and enlisted in the U. S. Army as soon as he was allowed.

His initial attempt to enlist in the Army was denied as he was enrolled in a premed college course with the hopes of becoming a physician. When he found out the reason for the denial of his enlistment, he withdrew from the course and was allowed to enlist. He lost his arm during a valiant fight against the Germans in which he showed incredible courage and was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Unable to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, he later went to law school and served as a senator for 49 years. He taught me that it’s not only what you do as a military member, but how you later live that really counts.

Reflecting back on the “Happy Memorial Day” greeting from that grocery store cashier now, I wonder if my initial thoughts about him were too harsh.

As we consider Korean War Veteran, Howard William Osterkamp’s words, “All gave some, and some gave all,” I believe we have a duty to renew our personal commitment to serve.

If you are a veteran, or the family member of a veteran, I salute you and thank you for your service and your sacrifice. But even if you have never served in the military or have a family member or friend who served, I’d like to invite you today to be a patriot.

A patriot is someone who unashamedly loves, defends, and supports his or her country with devotion. It requires a fearless commitment to serving others in word and deed, and a responsibility to speak up in support of American values. If you truly want to honor those who gave all, then be a patriot, starting today.

As you think about the significance of Memorial Day, I hope that you will remember, celebrate, and commit yourselves to lives of service as patriots. I will leave you with the powerful words of a poem by Don Nielson, entitled, “To Them We Owe.”

Happened today, and in the past;
Sacrifice made, for ours to last.
Wives to widows, families torn;
Gave their lives, for them we mourn.
Gone forever, should are lost;
Freedom comes, with this cost.
Enjoy the life, the did preserve;
Fate they suffered, did not deserve.
On this day, lest we forget;
To them we owe, our life in debt.

Thank you, and may God bless you and may God bless the United States of America.

Dr. Vicki Ball

(Editor’s Note from The Daily Corinthian: This is the keynote speech given at Shiloh National Cemetery on Memorial Day. Lt. Col. Vicki Ball retired from the Air Force in 2010 following a 23-year career as an active duty Nurse Corps officer. Her previous assignments included tours of duty in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, California, Nevada, Washington, D.C. and Georgia.

In 2004, she deployed to Tallil Air Base, Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom where she served as the chief nurse of an Expeditionary Medical Group leading a team of nurses and medical technicians in caring for injured airmen, soldiers and civilians.

She earned her baccalaureate degree in nursing from Clemson University in 1987, a master’s degree in nursing from Florida State University in 1997 and a doctoral degree in educational leadership from Liberty University in 2017. She is currently an Associate Professor and the Dean of Nursing at ҹ첥 Southern University in ҹ첥, S. C.)

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