Patrick Kennedy reminded listeners what Memorial Day is all about Sunday afternoon in a stirring speech given at the city's annual Memorial Day service at the 32nd Street Veterans Memorial Park.
The eight-term congressman from Rhode Island who now lives in Brigantine was the last of three keynote speakers at the ceremony, following Deputy Mayor Andy Simpson and state Assemblyman Chris Brown.
Kennedy began by thanking retired U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Jim Mackey for organizing the event, and Brown for serving his country in the military and as an elected official.
Kennedy, the son of the late U.S. Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, who served in the Senate for more than 46 years, and nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963, weaved a long family history of public and military service into the call for gratitude to all who paid the ultimate price for freedom.
He gave the audience a lighthearted reminder about having met his wife, Northfield schoolteacher Amy Petitgout, at a charity function in Atlantic City.
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“A lot of you are wondering what I'm doing here in Brigantine, New Jersey,” he said. “Well, I married a Jersey girl.”
Kennedy acknowledged that Memorial Day, May 29, would have been President John F. Kennedy's 100th birthday. Patrick was born about four years after JFK was assassinated, and also never got to know his uncle Robert F. Kennedy, a presidential hopeful who was also assassinated, or Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.
Below is a transcription of part of Kennedy's speech, which begins with his having learned of JFK's legacy through his father.
“While I grew up without him, I was blessed to have grown up with a father who told me all about him as well as my uncle Robert Kennedy and my uncle Joseph Kennedy. Many people don't know of my uncle Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. because, even while his brothers' lives were cut short, it was his life that was cut short the most. Because it was Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. who was killed in action over Europe trying to eliminate the buzz bombs that were terrorizing London at the time.
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“Today is the day we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, thinking about all they sacrificed so that we can live in freedom today. Twenty-seven years old — that is how old my uncle Joe was when his bomber went down over the skies of Europe. Today he rests in Arlington Cemetery right next to his brother Bobby, his brother Jack and my father, his brother Ted. All four who lay next to each other in Arlington National Cemetery, all four who wore the uniform of this great country of ours — all of them fought and believed in a better world and the obligation to give back to this country that has given so much to so many.
“President Kennedy inspired a generation that transformed America. They marched for justice. They served in the Peace Corps, in the inner cities and in outer space. My father and my uncle Bobby carried on that work, fighting against poverty, violence, bigotry, championing human rights, health care and immigration reform.
“As my father has fought for immigration reform, and as my uncle said in his inaugural address, this work will not be finished in our lifetime. It's up to us to continue to pass these values of inclusion to all — to our children and to our grandchildren. While my uncle never had the chance for length of years, he did appreciate what history had to give. His reverence for the past, and the lessons it could impart, told him that America was a country where change was possible.
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“I'm inspired by President Kennedy's sense of equality, his courage in naming the injustices in American society and his call for action. His words and his ideals mean so much to me and to the world we live in today. But we're still faced with tremendous inequity in justice, from our voting rights to our criminal justice system, and unequal treatment from those who suffer from illnesses like mental illness and addiction.
“President Kennedy would be proud of how far we've come as a nation since 1963, but he'd be the first to tell us we have a long way to go. I hope everyone, regardless of age or party affiliation, will remember what President Kennedy told Americans decades ago: Quote, 'This nation was founded by men and women of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all people are created equal, and that the rights of every man and woman are diminished when the rights of one are threatened.'
“President Kennedy was elected on a platform of challenges, not promises — not for what he could offer the American people as president but what he could ask of them. My favorite speech is one that President Kennedy gave at Rice University, where he makes the case for sending a man to the moon. He said that the challenge was worthwhile not because it would be easy, but because it would be so hard.
“My generation will have to launch a new frontier for discovery of its own. Instead of going to outer space, we will need to go to inner space of the mind, and explore the galaxy of neurons in the brain to understand how to help our families with brain illnesses, especially our veterans who are suffering from the invisible wounds of war, of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.
“We are losing 22 veterans every day in this country to suicide, and we need to make sure that when they return from war that they come home in body and in mind. These veterans and all Americans are confronting the largest public health crisis of our time — an opioid overdose epidemic that's claiming more lives than homicides and car accidents combined. I think my uncle would have been eager to take on this challenge by challenging all Americans to think of it as all of our problem. He cared deeply for those who suffered not only from a medical condition that was misunderstood, but from the stigma that marginalized him. His closest sister in age was his sister, my aunt Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability as well as a mental illness. And that sensitized him to both the medical aspects of this but also to the marginalization of those who suffer from these illnesses.
“When he signed the historic Community Mental Health Act of 1963 he said those with mental illness and mental disabilities, quote, 'need no longer be alien to our affections or beyond the hope of our communities.' From that statement we can learn a simple but important lesson. Our humanity is defined in the words of Matthew 25 of how we treat the least one of these, my brothers and sisters.
“I hope these reflections on President Kennedy's life and his influence on those of us who share his legacy will encourage people across the United States to look at the challenges in their own corner of the world and seek solutions that lift and heal the forgotten, and make a difference in the lives of others. And I hope that we all will continue to say a prayer — not only this day but all days — for the heroes in all of our families who died so that the rest of us could live in freedom.
“Today let us rededicate ourselves to helping to make this country worthy of their full measure of devotion. For it is the veteran, not the preacher, who gave us freedom of religion. It's the veteran, not the reporter, who gave us freedom of the press. It is the veteran, not the poet, who gave us freedom of speech. It is the veteran, not the campus organizer, who gave us freedom to assemble. It is the veteran, not the lawyer, who gave us the right to a fair trial. It is the veteran, not the politician, who gave us the right to vote.
“God bless our veterans, and let us not forget all of the families that were left behind by those who died in battle. Let's remember them just as much today because they also made the ultimate sacrifice when they lost their loved one, their father or their mother, in the service of our country.”