All of our freedoms are at stake when Americans go to war. In a very special way, the lives of those we honor today testify to the precious freedoms we enjoy under the First Amendment.
Those who practice journalism know how fragile that freedom often is in so many parts of the world. Today, for the first time in decades -- most people’s lifetimes -- Iraqis and Afghans can celebrate the opportunity to benefit from a free press and free media, institutions that have helped us to preserve freedom in this country for more than two centuries.
Our nation, particularly the Department of Defense and the men and women who serve our country so nobly, so well in uniform, take note of that fact -- take note of the extraordinary contribution to freedom that has been made by correspondents who’ve given their lives on the battlefield.
There is a corridor in the Pentagon where the names of those who died as journalists – like Ernie Pyle -- are recognized. And those we honor today are joining them.
The men and women in uniform know the importance of the profession that those who write and report practice -- and know the power of words. No better example exists than what occurred after the battle near here at Antietam. That victory gave us and the world the Emancipation Proclamation. And the word of that document reached across the seas to Great Britain. British workers, even though they were out of work from a lack of selling cotton, protested against their own government’s support for the Confederacy that practiced slavery.
If the tradition of embedded journalists didn’t begin in the Civil War, it certainly got a powerful start back then. The conditions were a good deal worse than the ones we’ve put up with today. Embedded journalists in the Civil War were frequently jailed, threatened with a firing squad, shot at, hunted down as spies, and frequently picked up guns and took part in battle.
In an era when there was no e-mail, no telephones, and frequently not even a telegram, not infrequently it was the actions of journalists carrying handwritten dispatches from the battlefield -- most notably after the Battle of the Wilderness -- that brought the first words from anywhere about what was taking place on the front.
They called themselves the Bohemian Brigade, and I believe it’s one of their members who owned a house on which this wonderful memorial stands, where we are today. But some things never change. One of those members of the Bohemian Brigade, a correspondent for the New York Tribune and for the New York Times named Samuel Wilkeson wrote:
“No man who in any way talks about his living conditions is fit to follow an army in an enemy's country. Reporters must be earnest and devoted.”
And I would add that’s true of women reporters as well. And I would add further, they must be brave as well. By those standards, a willingness to live in difficult conditions and most of all to risk danger, the men and women that we’re honoring today fully measured up to that high standard set 150 years ago.
I was among millions who were touched by the lives of these war journalists. I had the privilege to know Elizabeth Neuffer of the Boston Globe personally when we presented an award to her for international journalism some six years ago, for her bravery and professionalism in covering two earlier wars and war crimes in Bosnia. I was an avid reader of Michael Kelly’s dispatches going back to the first Persian Gulf War in the Atlantic Monthly, and each week I even looked forward to those columns in the Washington Post. I miss him enormously.
I was among literally thousands in the Department of Defense who watched entranced by David Bloom’s innovative coverage of combat and the men and women who were serving our country so wonderfully. His enthusiasm was infectious and brought news often before we got it from any other place.
Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal sacrificed his life in an effort to find out the truth about terrorists. I joined millions who prayed for him when he was captured, and millions who were horrified by his cruel murder. But while these journalists wrote great copy and great stories, their most distinguished journalism is in how they lived and how they died. They put the headline on their own story, one that speaks of sacrifice, professionalism, and the love of freedom and dedication to the truth.
Every life lost is painful for those who are left behind. It’s even more true when someone dies young. This happens so tragically in war so often. The journalists we honor today, like so many of the brave young Americans who’ve given their lives in the war on terrorism, leave behind parents who’ve lost a child and children who have lost a parent. It’s hard to imagine any loss more painful or more difficult to endure. And our hearts go out to the families of Michael Kelly, David Bloom, Elizabeth Neuffer, and Daniel Pearl, and all those military and civilians who have given their lives in this war.
But even those of us who may not have known these four individuals personally have an additional reason to mourn, because these were not only among the bravest, they were among the best. Their contributions to journalism and their tragically short lives stand nevertheless as enormous achievements. They remind us all of how much we have lost by their death, how much the world has lost by their death.
But while we mourn the contributions that we know these individuals would have made had they had the chance to live longer, we must cherish all that they achieved in their time on this earth -- far more than most of us are granted.
A wise man once said that those who pass away live on in the hearts of those who cherish their memories and in the good deeds they’ve done.
The individuals that we honor today, by that standard, will be with us for a very, very long time.