My father died in Leyte Gulf in the Philippines on December 3, 1944, when the ship on which he was serving as a Naval lieutenant was hit by a Japanese torpedo and sank in under a minute. 168 were rescued when they swam to a nearby island and 191 were lost.
I never knew my father. I was born four months later in New York City to a war widow in mourning, who shortly after my birth, moved with me to Morrisville, Vermont. Several years later she married a handsome French-Canadian ski instructor named Emile Rene Couture, and so I grew up in a small catholic community as Bill Couture.
When I turned eighteen, the man I knew as “Dad” took me to Hyde Park to apply for my draft card. For us kids, getting a draft card was a critical right-of-passage like getting a hunting or driver’s license. We would open our wallets and compare the contents, showing our draft card off with pride.
When mine came several weeks later, I tore open the Selective Service envelope with anticipation. But I noticed a difference. Mine said “Four-A” instead of “One-A.” I asked Dad why I wasn’t “One-A” like my friends. He explained, “you’re the sole son of a veteran killed in action.” I was distraught. Far from caring that my father had died a hero’s death, I focused on the fact that I differed from my friends and didn’t qualify for immediate call-up should war break out and so avoided all questions from my friends about my draft card.
Five years later, during the Vietnam draft, I was at UVM, married with two sons, and working a night shift at IBM, and my feelings were different.
The only trace I have of my father today was a book of his letters home from the war published posthumously. As a boy and young man, I tried many times to read the collection but something felt wrong and I would put the book down.
I was in my early forties before I could make it through the book. What I came to understand was that the voice in the letters was the voice of a young man both committed to his country and terrified and confused about his role in the war. Earlier, when I’d tried to read the book I needed and expected the paternal voice of a mature father when, in fact, my father was no older than I was when I first tried to read his letters.
I never served in the military as it turned out and so, since the age of twenty-five, chose to serve in public service, chairing or serving on some twelve boards from Fletcher Allen to several Vermont cultural non-profits. I currently serve on three.
I believe public service is vital to our survival as a country and has a critical role in the maturing of young people. For some time, I’ve advocated a compulsory national service that would require every young person living in America to give one or two years of their youth to their country, be it in the military, social services, or the national parks.
Too few young Americans today have any knowledge of civics, history, or their own roles and responsibilities in a successful democracy, nor have they had the maturing experience of having to do something for their country simply because it needs to be done.
I know most of you here have and it has shaped who you are today. Our young people would benefit, as we have, by the tempering experience of serving our country. I believe a national service would help our young people focus outside themselves and better understand their role in the country we love.
Thank you for joining me in remembering my father’s sacrifice and those of countless others and for asking me to join you today.