Words by Backcountry Hunters & Anglers AFI Coordinator Trevor Hubbs
If you think this speech is difficult to listen to, I promise it is even tougher to deliver.
The first time I gave this speech was at the battalion ball in 2008. At the time I thought I had been selected because I was an ambitious young soldier and being given a speaking assignment at the battalion ball in front of the command staff and assorted leaders was a reward of sorts. I now know that it is common to have the younger soldiers deliver this toast as they haven’t lost anyone yet, and, that being the case, it will be easier for them to deliver it than a more seasoned soldier.
Giving this toast today isn’t just poetic monologue or well-crafted prose meant to honor those who have fallen; it’s more surreal. Now it’s not just a blank face or tombstone in your mind as you listen to yourself deliver the words. Now you picture people you know, or rather people you knew. You can almost see them sitting there in the back of the room, at that little white table, with a cocktail or beer, staring back at you.
The United States is in a time of peace for the first time in 20 years. The conflicts in the Middle East have been the longest continued military action in the history of our country. Twenty years is more than two-thirds of my life. The last time we were in a time of peace I was learning “Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder. I remember the teachers all had strange expressions as they pulled all the kids into one classroom and wheeled in one of those old TVs on the metal stand with one squeaky wheel. The teachers were all whispering back and forth but none of us could tell what they were saying. I remember the principal of the small school coming into each classroom and talking to us. I was normally terrified of this man, but that day he sounded strange, and it wasn’t until later I realized this was the first time I had ever seen an adult afraid - and the unnatural expressions and tones were fear. I, like many others in my generation, decided that day that we were going to become soldiers, because that’s what America needed now.
When you look back on a 20-year segment of your life and realize how many events were colored by the constant presence of war is bizarre. The presidential physical fitness test in 7th grade: “I need to be able to run fast because they don’t let slowpokes into airborne school.” High School football: “These 2-a-day practices will be great training for when I’m in the Army.” Getting married: “Will this woman be able to take being a soldier’s wife?” Having children: “Will I be there to walk her down the aisle?”
A line of the toast stands out to me every time: “We join together to bear witness to their continued absence.” That’s all this whole ceremony is: a small chance to remind everyone within earshot that everything here was bought and paid for with another American’s life - and it’s our job to remember them and be grateful. The best way to remember them is by truly living your life and by helping others to live theirs. Our friends and teammates didn’t give everything so we could watch TV. Climb that mountain, learn to fly fish, take your kids for a hike, go hunt turkeys, just go enjoy the peace that cost so much.
That’s why I am a part of the BHA Armed Forces Initiative. I believe the best way for me to live my life is by getting folks outdoors and sharing some of the great experiences I’ve had with others in the military community. I can’t take you back to Sept. 10, 2001. I can’t give you the last 20 years of your life back so you can do it over different. I can’t give you all the missed holidays or relationships that ended because you chose to serve. I can’t bring your friends back. What I can do is focus on making your next 20 years the best years of your life. I can show you the joys of the outdoors and America's public lands and waters. If no one else understands your experiences, the mountains will, the moss-covered trees of the north will, the rivers and rocks will understand. Veterans more than anyone else have earned this peace. Let me help you live in it.
The Armed Forces Initiative is currently accepting applications for volunteer leaders all over the United States. We have 22 state liaisons and clubs on 19 military installations taking 2,400 members of the military community into the backcountry annually. We need your help. I’m not looking for the greatest whitetail hunter or fly fishermen in the world. All I need is some folks who have the time to plan and volunteer at some events. Whether your talents lie in graphic design, photography, cooking or accounting, I will find a job for you. There’s plenty of work that needs doing - all we’re missing is you.
Save the date for Rendezvous 2023 in Missoula, MT. RSVP for next years event here!