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Speech by Maryland senator in 1970 captures essence of our debt to veterans [Editorial]

"Thank you for your service." These are the words of respect we hear Americans use to honor their fellow citizens who have served in the armed forces, especially now during Veterans Day observances. The sentiment, though commonplace, is no less sincere. We, as a nation, are grateful to the men and women who have put themselves "in harm's way" in defense of our freedoms.

Much eloquence has been expressed on behalf of veterans in years past, but here is a noteworthy sample from a Maryland native son.

In 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, Republican Sen. Charles "Mac" Matthias (1922-2010), a Frederick native who represented Maryland in Congress from 1969 to 1987, spoke on Veterans Day at a time when morale among citizens and soldiers was at a low ebb. Matthias was a Navy veteran of World War II.

His comments were reported in news accounts and appear as part of the History Matters column in this week's paper.

The senator said, "In these days it has become fashionable among some Americans to scorn military service and to believe that if only we would give up our arms, other nations would immediately do the same.

"Alas, this is not the case.

"At the other extreme are those who equate honest dissent with a questioning of national honor. They feel that we betray our fighting men if we exercise that right of dissent which, by their service, our men have guaranteed us.

"This too, is wrong, for we betray them if we don't exercise that right.

"Indeed, we owe our fighting men every last drop of our best judgment so that we can feel sure that they are not fighting in vain. But this is not enough — we also owe them our deepest honor, for they have put their very lives on the line, and all our rhetoric could never match the eloquence of that act."

Matthias chose a conciliatory tone over saber-rattling in that Veterans Day speech during a time when passions ran high. One of the most popular Maryland politicians of his day, he was also an odd duck as a Republican. Running on a liberal platform in 1968, he defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Daniel Brewster, who ran on a conservative platform. During his terms in the Senate, his voting record was more liberal than most Democrats.

We think this former Navy officer, who once inspected the atomic-bomb damage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would probably give the same speech on Veterans Day if he were alive today. And we would be wise to listen to him again.

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