Capt. James McLaughlin ’06 was the guest speaker at Culver Academies’ Gold Star Ceremony on Memorial Day. This his speech to the students, faculty, staff and guests gathered in the Memorial Chapel on Monday, May 26.
McLaughlin is a 2010 graduate of the United States Military Academy, receiving his admissions offer through Culver. Upon graduation from West Point, McLaughlin was commissioned as an infantry officer. After completing the Infantry Officer Basic Course and Army Ranger School, He was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum New York as a member of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, “Golden Dragons.” He served as a Rifle Platoon Leader, deploying to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He is currently assigned as the Battalion Assistant Operations Officer.
His military awards and badges include the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Ranger Tab, the Basic Parachutist’s Badge, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Achievement Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster), the Afghan Campaign Medal (with Star), and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
Gold Star Ceremony
May 26, 2014
By James McLaughlin ’06, US Army
Good morning. Mr. and Mrs. Buxton, Capt. Neller, and Mrs. Greene, faculty and staff and, most importantly, the cadets and girls of the Academies, thank you for hosting me. It’s truly an honor and I am humbled that I am able to share my perspective at one of Culver’s most revered events.
As I’ve only been a soldier for four short years, I can definitively say that I am not an authority on the true meaning of service. However, I can also definitively say that in those four short years, I’ve seen and done more than I could have possibly imagined when I accepted my admissions offer to West Point as a Culver senior. I have frozen in the Appalachians with 80 pounds on my back. I’ve been in charge of 40 of the finest infantryman and led them into harm’s way in Afghanistan. I’ve served in one of the Army’s most historic regiments, jumped out of planes and been in combat. I’ve lost acquaintances and I’ve lost friends. And from all that, I have learned. Today, I would like to share three characteristics of being a soldier that I have learned about firsthand: duty, sacrifice, and imperfection.
The first, duty, is the foundation of everything a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine does. It’s the word most frequently associated with service. MacArthur listed it as one of the three “musts” for an officer (it later became part of West Point’s “Duty, Honor, Country” motto). Nelson famously stated, “England expects that every man will do his duty” prior to engaging the Spanish and French at Trafalgar. And Robert E. Lee proclaimed, “Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.”
But for all that magnitude, what does duty truly mean? What I’ve learned is that it is a simple yet profound concept – it is putting one’s self secondary to whatever is being asked of him/her. It’s doing what has to be done, despite the risk, challenges, or danger. It’s the acceptance of hardship. And in this respect, this commitment to duty, soldiers have amazed me again and again. While visiting Walter Reed Army Hospital as a cadet, I met a first sergeant—a double amputee—who wasn’t concerned about his injuries, but just cared about getting back to his unit, about being a soldier again. As a new second lieutenant at Fort Benning, I remember being on a particularly miserable nine-mile, pre-dawn run when a man in black PT gear—a Ranger whose name and rank I never learned—ran past me. Both of his legs were prosthetics. As a platoon leader at the Joint Readiness Training Center, I saw my soldiers, despite five days of little or no sleep, execute a no-notice mission with a precision that amazed everyone who saw it. And in Afghanistan, I learned that soldiers will put their problems, their frustrations, and their issues aside and execute the impossible, day in and day out. These men didn’t do these things because they wanted to – they did it because it was the job, and that was it. And duty is just that – mission first, self second. Every day a service member wakes up in uniform, he or she is committing to that. And that is the first characteristic that makes service unique.
Sacrifice stems from duty. It’s its natural extension; the willingness to give up what matters to you without hesitation, despite reservation. It has been said that a veteran is someone who has written a check, payable to The United States of America, for any amount up to, and including, his life. While no veteran ever wishes that proverbial check to be cashed, they know that it could happen any day. I remember being in an Officer Professional Development class when I first reported to my unit. The topic was training safety, and on one slide was a Department of Defense report that compared training deaths in the 1980s to combat deaths during the Global War on Terror. All of us in the room were shocked that over twice as many soldiers had died annually during training in the ’80s than had in combat during the current wars. And that’s when I began to learn about sacrifice. It isn’t just the peril of combat, the facing the enemy in a hostile land. It’s the daily commitment – stepping into a cockpit, placing demolitions onto a training range, executing training in rough seas, or walking patrols in the alleys of Baghdad. But it goes beyond even the hazardous situations soldiers get put in to. It’s 12-month deployments. It’s sitting in a fighting position in a soaked uniform, staring into the night. It’s time away from families, friends, and comforts. It’s a long road march, cold food, and no showers. It’s pain, it’s fatigue, and it’s frustration. And, most of all, it’s knowing all of these things, and doing it day after day. That’s true sacrifice, and that is at the very heart of serving.
The final characteristic of serving I would like to talk about is imperfection. Unlike duty or sacrifice, imperfection is not a trait commonly associated with service. Yet, to me, I think it is just as important. While service certainly sets someone apart, a soldier is ultimately just a regular person. He or she is an ordinary citizen who volunteers to do the extraordinary. Joining the military doesn’t correct their flaws or change their vices. It does highlight the good in man, especially when adversity is applied, and it more importantly imbues them with a deep sense of honor. But despite all of the good the military does, there is bad as well. We had a Sergeant First Class, a Distinguished Service Cross recipient, get demoted first to Staff Sergeant and then to Sergeant while serving in my battalion. He was a true hero, a man who could handle all war could throw at him — yet it did not make him a good person. Each name that is read here today is a hero to this nation and to these Academies and their service should be both honored and remembered. But we should strive to remember these men for who they were, not who we idolize them to be. I have found that soldiers will always strive to overcome their imperfections. They often succeed. Sometimes they do not. But despite the success or failure, the true humanity of the American soldier to me is far more remarkable than any myth or any story. We should apply that same thought to Culver’s Gold Star men.
These three traits bring me to the first friend I lost in the War on Terror, 1st Lt. Todd Lambka. He was my classmate at West Point, my platoon mate at the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course, and my close friend while I spent a year down at Fort Benning, Ga. It was six months before I was to deploy to Paktika Province and my platoon had just returned from a two-week division training exercise. After doling out the tasks that needed to be accomplished, I headed into my office, dropped my ruck, kit, weapon, and, like any good 24-year-old, wanted to see what had happened the last two weeks on Facebook. And that’s when I saw it. On Aug. 1, 2012, in the very province I was just about to deploy to, my friend Todd had lost his life when his vehicle had struck an IED. Pfc. Jesus Lopez died with him. It is frequently said that it’s always the best ones that get struck down, and Todd was no exception. His personality was infectious, and he was the guy who would always lift our platoon’s spirits. You could always rely on Todd for his support, his candor, and his humor. But, Todd was not the strongest officer I knew. He was in the minority of our platoon that he did not complete the Army’s grueling Ranger Course. He was never first in on rucks or runs. But despite his struggles, Todd came in every day, did the same training, and never once stopped, gave up, or showed any strain. He was a true soldier and made all of us better through his example.
Whenever I think of Todd, I think of the words of Gen. George S. Patton, a man I consider to be a great American service member, who once said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” Today, we honor the Culver men who have been killed in our nation’s wars. We honor the Todd Lambkas. But we should never be sad at their passing. We should strive to learn what their service truly meant to this country, and be in awe that such men were Americans.
Thank you again for having me, and may God bless both the United States and those who have died in service to our nation.