There is a special anniversary commemorating an iconic moment in U.S. history that you may have missed last week. Feb. 23 was the 75th anniversary of the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima.
You know that iconic picture of those brave Marines who stood on top of Iwo Jima hosting the Stars and Stripes. What’s remembered less often is that three of those men died the next day. And more than 6,000 Americans would die on that rugged island before the battle ended.
In our family, we remember a tough Marine who cried when he saw that flag. He had been shot through the chest taking on a suicide mission to protect his platoon in the battle of Iwo Jima. He should have died, but a promise to give his life over to God combined with a brother who disobeyed a direct order to bring him medical attention was just the miracle he needed to survive. That man was Duffy Palmer, Abby’s grandfather.
Duffy was the stuff of legend. He was a boxing and judo instructor. A Marine’s Marine. He got a tattoo of an anchor on his forearm. And then had it removed via skin graft as a symbol of his devotion to his church. One of his faith leaders, Neal A. Maxwell, referred to him as “half high priest, half Marine.” He might be the toughest man I ever met. This is what he wrote when asked about that moment many years later:
“It rained on us a day or two there on Iwo Jima. One day, three or four days into the operation, I looked up and saw the “FLAG OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” flying on the Mt. Suribachi. What a thrill it was to see the flag. What joy it gave and great encouragement to all of us. Here I was a big TOUGH MARINE SERGEANT. Yet when I saw the beautiful symbol of freedom, I cried like a baby. How beautiful it was and to me still is. Those posting the colors on the hill knew what they were doing, but we did not. I feel the real drama of that posting of the colors. We saw the flag and were not afraid to show the emotion of love for the flag. How I wish every American could always have those feelings for the flag that I experienced that day.”
His wish is a poignant one. Duffy died in 1996 and he was very worried that too many Americans had forgotten that moment and countless others. Those moments that are distinctly American. Those moments that saved the world for future generations and kept the American Dream alive. Those moments when we sacrificed and unified. I suspect he would find the divided America of today almost unrecognizable.
Duffy was part of the Greatest Generation. But there was nothing inherently special about that generation before the war. There was something about the evils of war and shared purpose and sacrifice that gave us the Greatest Generation. They became the Greatest Generation when ordinary men and women met the moment. As Sir Winston Churchill states:
“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”
Now, it’s not a surprise that many of us missed the 75th anniversary of that special moment. There was something else happening on Feb. 23. That was the day that Russia invaded Ukraine.
Over the past few days we have seen women and men being tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing. Fortunately, they are meeting their moment in ways that have brought tears to all of our eyes. It is breathtaking and inspiring. Famous people, regular people. Ambassadors, boxers, school teachers, moms. All standing up to a maniacally powerful tyrant.
“I need ammunition, not a ride.”
“Take these seeds and put them in your pockets.”
“Russian warship, go f*** yourself.”
This is the stuff of legends. The stuff of statues. The stuff of Mount Suribachi.
There is a patriotism in it all. Not the in-your-face faux patriotism. Not a selfish patriotism. But a humble strength. Strength that overlooks a country’s flaws or the flaws of its leaders and sees the good worth saving. Strength that comes from a conviction that there is good and evil, and right will prevail regardless of the odds. But if not, we will give our lives anyway. Strength that comes from believing in something bigger than yourself. The kind of strength that inspires a ragtag army — with a charismatic leader willing to lead them into battle — to stand up to a world superpower in order to preserve democracy and freedom.
There is something vaguely familiar in it all. It feels, well, American. Or at least what America can be and has been at its very best.
Somewhere between Iwo Jima and Kyiv we lost this thread. We argue and fight about so much stupid stuff. Stuff that melts away when we see children sobbing as their dads say goodbye. Stuff that doesn’t matter when we see a young couple getting married so they can die together on the battlefield. Stuff that seems trivial when rockets are raining down and democracy and people are dying.
I had no idea that it would take us all becoming Ukrainians to remind us what it means to be Americans. It’s almost surreal to see Republicans and Democrats uniting again. And certainly not just Americans. There is a unity occurring all across the world that we haven’t seen since 9/11. For too many of us it may feel a little uncomfortable. We haven’t exercised these bipartisan or nonpartisan muscles much.
Please lean into the discomfort. We need this. Our country needs this. The world needs this.
I also recognize that we might feel a little helpless. After all, rallying at the Capitol and removing Russian vodka from the shelves are mostly symbolic gestures. But make no mistake, in times of war and evil, symbols absolutely matter. Just ask a young Duffy Palmer staring at that flag on Mount Suribachi.
And so today, I have ordered the Ukrainian flag to fly above the Utah State Capitol as a symbol that Utah stands in solidarity with Ukraine. You are our brothers and sisters this day and always.
P.S. For those looking to help, there are several charities that are making a difference… UNICEF, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Rescue Committee.