The meaning of Memorial Day by Lt. Charles Baker

Editor’s Note: The following speech was given following the Old Greenwich Memorial Day Parade in Binney Park by Lt. Charles Baker, a former resident of Old Greenwich, and an active duty member of the U.S. Navy.

Good afternoon and thank you all for being here today to join in celebration and remembrance of our fallen service members.

Over the years and for several Memorial Days, I have been approached and thanked for my service.  However appreciated, Memorial Day is not a time to thank 26 year old Lieutenants and other living, active duty members of our armed forces.  Memorial Day, designated originally to commemorate fallen Americans of our Civil War, has, in the 20th century, transformed into a day to honor all Americans who have died while in service to our nation.  While this may be clear to many, it is imperative for all to note this distinction.

I was invited to speak today by Selectmen Tesei and Theis on what Memorial Day means to me as both an American citizen and as an American service member.  In order to fulfill this assignment, I must first provide a brief background about myself, so please permit me to bore you with my 5 cent bio.

For those here whom I have yet to meet, I grew up in Old Greenwich at 2 Forest Avenue just up the street here.  After Old Greenwich Elementary, Eastern Middle, and Greenwich High School where I graduated in 2005, I attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and was commissioned as a Navy Ensign in 2009.  Following the Academy, I was stationed in Virginia on the USS MASON and was later reassigned to the USS STETHEM in Japan.

As a kid growing up in Old Greenwich, I thought of Memorial Day as a fun event with outdoor barbecues, great parades, and a day off from school.  It wasn’t really until I landed on the flight deck of the USS STETHEM in the Arabian Gulf in 2012 that I truly learned what Memorial Day was all about.

All ships in the Navy have names.  Some are named for presidents, others for cities, and others still, for notable people, battles, and places.  USS STETHEM is the best known ship in the Navy. I will come back to why this is in a minute.  USS STETHEM is named in memory of Steelworker Second Class, Robert Dean Stethem.

Robby, as he is affectionately known by all sailors that have served on his destroyer, was born in Waterbury, CT and was one of four children.  After high school, Robby joined the Navy in 1981 and became a Seabee Steelworker, an underwater welder.  On June 14, 1985, Robby was returning from assignment in Greece aboard TWA flight 847 when it was hijacked by terrorists who held the plane’s passengers hostage for 17 days while demanding the release of 766 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.  Stethem was targeted as a member of the US military and was used by the militants as a bargaining chip to gain leverage in the hostage/prisoner release negotiations.

When their demands were not met, Robby was beaten, tortured, and ultimately executed.  The only crime Robby committed, in the eyes of his captors, was being a proud American.  They attempted, through their brutality, to force Robby to denounce his country and our way of life.  Instead of surrendering to their demands, Robby rose to the occasion and despite his own physical state, amidst torture and punishment, encouraged other passengers to stay calm and to persevere.  Captain Testrake, the Captain of TWA 847 described Robby as “a brave, young American who, in a very real sense, gave his life to his country … He stood there for us all.”

Robby’s ability to endure and defy took the focus off the rest of the plane’s passengers and increased their chance of survival.  In the end, Robby was the only casualty of the hijacking of TWA 847.

USS STETHEM’s motto that can be found written throughout the ship, is “steadfast and courageous” to represent Robby’s heroic actions in his final hours.  In the wake of the hijacking, Robby’s older brother, Boatswain Mate Chief (SEAL) Kenneth Stethem described his feelings about his fallen brother: “Every time I look at the flag now and for the rest of my life the red will represent the blood he spilled, the blue the beating and bruises he endured, and the white the purity and integrity he demonstrated in sacrificing his life.”

Although Robby departed this world in 1985, the Stethem name and spirit are alive and well today in the deck plates of the USS STETHEM.  The crew, known in Navy circles as the “steelworkers” works diligently day in and day out to ensure the ship is operating at full capacity and up to Robby’s standards.

A member of the Stethem family has come to every change of command ceremony since the ship’s commissioning.  For the Stethems, Robby’s legacy lives on through his destroyer and his crew.  During an 8 month deployment to the Arabian Gulf, we received frequent correspondence from the Stethem family wishing us well with fair winds and following seas.  Our Captain, addressing the Officers and Crew with notes of appreciation and encouragement from Robby’s family meant the world to us and kept us motivated.

Despite blistering heat, humidity, sleep deprivation and perpetual harassment from the Iranian “coast guard” we knew in the back of our heads that Robby went through worse and we needed to endure.  In November of 2012, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Robby’s older brother, Ken at the ship’s change of command ceremony in Yokosuka.  Ken, as a retired Navy SEAL is a larger than life figure and has the personality to match his physique.

As the change of command ceremony coordinator, I was afforded the opportunity to work hand in hand with Ken to ensure we had a memorable event.  Ken is a gifted speaker and delivered memorable comments at the change of command ceremony.  He spoke of remaining “steadfast and courageous” in everything we do on the ship and in life.

STETHEM is the best known ship in the Navy because Robby represents the best our country has to offer. In his final hours he stood “steadfast and courageous” and exemplified traits of what our country is all about.  Robby’s purity of heart and character, coupled with the heinous nature of his untimely demise resonates with all members of our Navy and is why the ship is famous.  For the remainder of my life, Robby Stethem will be at the forefront of my mind on Memorial Day.

In keeping with my initial assignment to speak on what this day means to me, Memorial Day is a time to remind ourselves to remain “steadfast and courageous” in everything we do in life.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your service in your capacity as volunteers in our community.  It is never too late to start volunteering.  Service to your country is not necessarily defined as wearing a uniform or standing up to Islamic extremism in the face of impeding doom.  I am certain that every service member that has passed in service to our country would love to be with us here today to join in a spectacular parade amidst friends and family.

Let us today celebrate their lives, their service and their sacrifice while at the same time honoring them through continued service to our community.

Lt. Charles Baker
U.S. Navy  

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