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Hitchens, a Vietnam War veteran, discusses the high cost of freedom on Memorial Day
Rep. Bill Hitchens
Rep. Bill Hitchens speaks at a 2021 Memorial Day ceremony at Veterans Park of Effingham County. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff
Veterans Day and Memorial Day are very different. Veterans Day is to honor those who served who are still alive. Memorial Day is to honor those who lost their lives in the defense of our country.
Rep. Bill Hitchens

SPRINGFIELD — Rep. Bill Hitchens has never been accused of being a man of few words. Even so, he borrowed some memorable ones from historical figures to set the tone for his Memorial Day speech at Veterans Park of Effingham County.

“Robert E. Lee once stated and I quote, ‘It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise, we could go grow too fond of it,” Hitchens told an attentive crowd of about 100 that basked in a setting sun.

Hitchens has been a fixture at Veterans Park events for two decades but Monday was the first time that he served at one as the featured speaker. 

“Veterans Day and Memorial Day are very different,” Hitchens said. “Veterans Day is to honor those who served who are still alive. Memorial Day is to honor those who lost their lives in the defense of our country.”

As he moved toward the heart of his speech, Hitchens cited the “enormity of death” of Americans in several military conflicts:

— Civil War: 620,000

— World War II: 405,399

— World War I: 116,516

— Vietnam War: 58,209

— Korean War: 36,516

— Revolutionary War: 25,000

— War of 1812: 20,000

— Operation Iraqi Freedom: 4,431

— Operation Enduring Freedom: 2,352

— Operation Inherent Resolve: 104

— Operation Freedom Sentinel: 96

— Operation New Dawn: 74

“It’s kind of a rough estimate but that means we lost 1,268,697 people in the wars of this country,” Hitchens said.

Hitchens then focused on the Vietnam War. He served in it as a U.S. Marine.

“While it’s been 54 years since I left Vietnam, like all those who served there, the memories will be with us forever,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are still many wounds that haven’t healed — not just physical injuries but emotional and psychological wounds as well. Many Vietnam vets not only suffered from the war — which I believe was our the most divisive time in our country’s history since the Civil War — they were hurt and dumbfounded at the treatment they received after returning home from putting their lives on the line in support of their country’s initiative.

“My hope is that amongst us those who are still troubled will seek some solace in events such as these and you and your comrades are warmly recognized. I also want to personally welcome you home and I sincerely hope that you will find peace that you so richly deserve. God bless all of you.”

Hitchens mentioned several interesting Vietnam War facts.

 “The first (American) casualty in Vietnam was Richard Fitzgibbon (Jr.) of Massachusetts, who died on June 8, 1956,” he said. “His name is on the Vietnam Wall (Veterans Memorial) with his son, Marine Lance Corporal Richard Fitzgibbon III, who was killed in action nine years later on Sept. 7, 1965. There are three sets of fathers and sons (listed on the wall). “There are 31 sets of brothers, so there are 31 sets of parents who lost two sons. 

“Sixteen clergymen lost their lives in Vietnam. Eight women, all nurses, lost their lives there. Fifty-four (casualties) came from one high school in Philadelphia.”

Hitchens said more than 39,996 American casualties in Vietnam were 22 or younger. Five were 16 and one was 15.

“Nine hundred and ninety-seven (Americans) were killed on their first day in Vietnam and 1,448 were killed on their last scheduled day,” Hitchens said. “To most who hear this, this is just statistics but, for Vietnam vets and the relatives of those who were lost, they hold many heartfelt memories.”

Hitchens used quotes from English-born political activist Thomas Paine while thanking all veterans for their sacrifice.

“Many of his quotes are apropos to the Vietnam era,” Hitchens said. “One of his most quoted statements was, ‘These are the times that try men’s souls.’ He also said, ‘Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it.’ “And the last (quote) I’ll mention is the most striking to me, ‘If there must be trouble, let it be in my day so my child may live in peace.’ 

“These quotes probably ring true to many of you here today who have experienced the difficult challenges of war which was necessitated in order to bring us peace and preserve freedom.”

In addition to his stint as a Marine in Vietnam, Hitchens spent 25 years in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve before retiring in 2001. His family tree is filled with men who served their country. Some of them paid the ultimate price.

“I am proud of my veteran status and am now and will forever be an advocate for veterans and for the United States to maintain a strong military, which we all know is the greatest deterrent to war,” he said.