Open Letter to a Vet

“The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” - Douglas MacArthur

To my friend:

I am not your wife. Or your girlfriend. Or your sister. I am not your daughter or your mother. I am only me. I am someone who knows you and someone who cares and someone who loves you, which makes me a little bit of all of the things I am not.

I cannot possibly understand the things that have happened to you. The things that you have seen. The things that you know. The things you have felt. I cannot possibly imagine the loss you have experienced and the pain you have endured. Worst of all, I  can’t possibly wrap my mind around the things that you didn’t do. The things that didn’t happen to you. The ones that maybe torture you the most.

You tell me that the hardest part is falling asleep, and the worst part is waking up.

My heart hurts for those words, and for the ache that you cannot make still and quiet inside of you after all of these years.

You give up drinking, for months on end, thinking it will silence the demons, but here they are again, in your head, not giving you any rest. You drown it again for awhile, thinking the booze will numb the pain, but through the haze you still feel it piercing your chest like the bullet that didn’t hit you.

If I could give my arm to be the kevlar vest you need for that invisible bullet, I would. If I could give my leg to put a permanent end to the voice that haunts you, I would do it right now. If I could transplant some of the the peace that allows me to sleep at night into your wracked heart, I would give it up gladly. But I can’t. I can do nothing but listen to you. Or wait for you. I can be here when you need me. I can pry open the cracks when I see them and try to shine some light in those dark places that you keep shut so tight. As if keeping it all on lockdown will somehow, someway, make it disappear eventually. But it won’t, so I will keep trying to pull it out of you, one piece at a time. One bit of darkness replaced with light.

I hope to God I will never know what it is like to take another life. I can’t imagine how that violates your divine spark. It’s not right. It’s unnatural. It’s the most unnatural thing a human can do. But it doesn’t make it unnecessary. You did your job, the worst job a human can do, and you came home. You did it right. And then they set you loose like a spinning top with a broken soul and expected you to be fine. To function. You aren’t the crazy one in this world, I promise.

I will never understand the guilt you feel for being alive when the other guys aren’t. I can’t. But I can know it. I will never fully comprehend the violence that witnessing the intentional end of life for others caused to your soul. But I can study it. I can seek to understand the monsters that have followed you back from the life of service that you gave to us. And I can be here. To listen. To remind you that the monsters are not you. That the gift of you coming home means more to the rest of us than you can know. I am so unequal to the task of helping you. The fight you face is one I don’t know if I could survive, and yet I want to be here to fight it with you, however that looks.

I can tell you that if you traded places with one of the guys that you lost over there, or one of the ones you have lost back here since then, that the course of my life would be radically altered and I am only one of many, many people who would say the same thing. And not in a good way. I needed to meet you, to know you. I needed to hear you. I even needed your darkness. I needed to know the hurt you face. It made me take action. Ask the guy over the hill that told his 40+ year old war stories for the first time, because you found me. Ask the one who finally feels like somebody gives a shit that he ever served, or gives a shit that that service left him with any suffering.

All of the things you have done and seen and been and lived have brought you here, and here is where I am, and many other people who need you. Here is where your pain and your struggle opens the door for healing for others, and then in turn, for you. Because you are here. You are still here, and you need to be.

You say you only care about helping other people, making them happy. That’s why you’re still here. You know the loss of you would destroy so many people, and lucky for us, that guilt keeps you with us. For now, we’ll take it. We’ll take the guilt if it’s the thing that keeps you here. But sometime, somehow, you’re gonna be here with us, with me, because you want to be. Because there’s life here and it’s good. Because you get a chance that those other guys don’t have any more and you’d damn well better make the best of it. Because you are loved.


Patriots Shooting Team and the Reasons Why

“On the battlefield, the military pledges to leave no soldier behind. As a nation, let it be our pledge that when they return home, we leave no veteran behind.”

-Dan Lipinski

Justice Snell sights in on her target.

Justice Snell sights in on her target.

The wind whistled around her blonde hair as she sighted in on her target. Tuning out the laughing chatter from the next stage, her focus was on the black dot far in the distance and the steady, calm instruction coming from a voice to her left. Calculating for the wind, the distance, and the weapon that she has been learning for months, she takes the shot. “IMPACT!” someone calls, a split second before the distant plink is audible to onlookers.

13-year-old Justice Snell shifted to the next target and followed suit, clearing the stage. Snell lay in the frozen mud next to her father, US Marine Corps veteran Toby Snell, one of the American Freedom Fund Patriots Shooting Team members, who came to the match outside of Cheney, WA, on a frozen Saturday in January with his daughter and other teammates, giving no thought to the below-freezing temperatures and knee deep mud criss-crossing the range. This is what they do. They stamp their feet to stay warm between stages and watch as each shooter navigates their way through the course, picking up tips and angles from the experience of the shooters before them.

Snell and his daughter  were joined at the match with Inar Frostad, a Navy vet who had met Snell briefly when they both served as Range Officers (RO) for a different match. Both local to the area, Snell and Frostad connected over their shared military experience and love for shooting. They came together again at the AFF Catch 22 Shoot outside of Kettle Falls last spring, where they met more veteran shooters from the tri-county area, including Patrick Flanagan, who also joined them at the Miller Ranch shoot for this cold morning shooting match.

There were no high stakes here at the Miller Ranch Small Game Shoot. No major awards or fancy prize tables, ust a lot of mud, laughs, and before the last stage of the event, a cloud bank that would roll in and enshroud the whole range with pea-soup fog, completely obliterating the targets from sight. The Patriots Shooters shrugged off the early end with a laugh, happy to be in a heated vehicle together headed toward warm food and storytelling.

The takeaway from this shoot are the growing friendships. The knowledge that just up the road there’s another guy who’s been there, deployed to some foreign place witnessing things that their friends back home can’t relat to. Here they have somebody else who gets it. They’ve got kids and families who support and love them, but this is where all those memories and questions from their years of service find a place to surface, even if they aren’t answered, or spoken, they are shared. These guys know. They share the restless itch that civilian life and jobs don’t quite scratch. Their mutual discontent, right under the surface, remembers what it was like to be part of a team fighting for something that mattered, maybe even for their lives.

This is what the AFF Shooting Team is all about, joining the vets with the brothers-in-arms that are sprinkled throughout our communities but might otherwise not ever connect. Bringing generations together, Vietnam veterans and Gulf War vets and the veterans of more recent conflicts, together with their families, and kids like Justice, parents and spouses, building that safety net of understanding and support.

Snell’s 13-year-old daughter outshot most of the vets from the team that day (at her first ever official competition) except maybe her dad, upping the challenge for the next shoot, which will hopefully be a little warmer. Every event the shooting team makes it to happens because these guys and gals have a community that supports them. Donations from AFF supporters help to cover the registration and ammunition costs of these multi-generational matches that bring vets and their families together. It makes it just a little easier and a little more possible for vets who have bills to pay and families to provide for. The Big Voice, AFF and all of our veteran and active duty shooters thank you for your support and for making this community the amazing place that it is. For more information, visit AmericanFreedomFund.org or find The American Freedom Fund and The Big Voice on Facebook.


The AFF Patriots make their way between stages at the Small Game Shoot

The AFF Patriots make their way between stages at the Small Game Shoot

Big Community Love for Our Veterans - thanks from the Big Voice

When the Big Voice launched in 2016, our goal was to reach out to veterans in the local community and connect them to a larger network of other veterans and the resources that were available to them. In just a little more than two years, the support of our community has made that vision a reality. On November 10th, 2018, Backyard BBQ in Kettle Falls hosted a veterans day celebration to honor local vets, feeding them a free dinner provided by the restaurant and several big supporters.

The turnout was tremendous Backyard BBQ fed more than 150 veterans a free dinner, and the outpouring of care for our vets was staggering. In addition to the free dinner, there was a fundraising concert to help cover the costs of the American Freedom Fund Patriots Shooting Team, an all veteran and active duty competitive shooting team that travels in the northwest to engage in shooting events. Two local artists, Dylan Yeager (a Marine Corps vet himself) played a set and then Chipped and Broken performed. As the veteran audience trickled in, local friends and family gathered around to thank them for their service and hear their stories. The final band for the night, Brewers Grade, played a country set that got everybody on the dance floor, as vets from all generations and their friends and family mingled and celebrated.

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Several vets from different military service branches and generations approached members of the Big Voice and the Patriots Shooting Team to talk about the program and what was being done to help our vets. Watching the network of veterans expand that night was exactly why the Big Voice started. Two local vets asked to join the shooting team, and many veterans donated out of their own pockets to support the guys that are competing.

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In addition to the dinner and concert, Silas Rappe, Regional Mobility and Veterans Services Coordinator for Tri County Economic Development District was on hand with Judy Lockner and Valerie Lamont, two local quilters who have donated several quilts to local vets, to draw a raffle winner for the newest veteran quilt. The winner, Duane Fryer entered the drawing when the beautiful red, white and blue quilt was on display at Dodson’s Paint and Glass in Colville before the event.

The Big Voice and Backyard BBQ would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to the community for their support, specifically, Country Chevrolet, Keith & Shannon Miller, Eric & Kelly Weatherman, Chip & Emily Johnson, Joel Adrian with Sysco, Riverview Orchard, Westerguard, New Tech in Kettle Falls, HANK FM, American Legion Post 146, Jim Langevin, Dylan Yeager, J.B. Nokes Photography, Colville Printing, Debbie Becker at the Mustang Grill in Northport, Clark’s All Sports, as well as several anonymous supporters and so many more who donated and helped out to make the event a success.

As the Big Voice grows, more and more vets are reaching out to us with their stories to share. Some who have never found a place to talk about their wartime experiences. We look forward to sharing these stories with you and helping to build a support network for all of those who served for us.

The AFF Patriots Shooting Team is part of the mission at the Big Voice and is comprised of local shooters and supported through the American Freedom Fund, a non-profit founded by Don Bramer and Colville native Gabe Stecker both currently serving in the US Navy in Washington D.C. The non-profit umbrella allows the Big Voice and local vets to receive tax deductible donations. The American Freedom Fund is served by an all-volunteer, all-veteran board, and all money raised goes directly to the programs for veterans that include the Patriots Shooting Team, Softball Teams on the east coast and academic internships for veterans. For more information, please visit www.americanfreedomfund.org, or contact thebigvoice31@gmail.com.

Thank you so much for your support, without this community, the Big Voice would be unable to accomplish the mission of bringing our vets together and giving them everything they need to flourish.


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A Veteran's Story: Cliff Cahoon, Part I

By: Clifford Cahoon

NOTE: This is the first of a series of stories from Cliff’s time in Vietnam, more will follow. Cliff is part of the AFF Patriot’s Shooting team, and an all around great guy. We can’t express our deep gratitude for his willingness to share his stories with us.

101st Air Borne Division, 2/327 INF, NO SLACK, C company, 2nd platoon, Viet Nam 69, 70

“To lay bare the conflict within, to strip away the social anxiety, to talk about the reality and the fear that feeds on the unknown moments of our future.”

C.D.C.

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Veterans Day comes and goes every year. There are quiet times, memorials, celebrations and Veterans Day sales that abound throughout our country with great flourish; and then it is over. For some veterans, it is never over. Every day there is some memory etched in their soul so deeply, it creates a void that can isolate them from everything around them. Sometimes they find no lasting help or support and they choose to end their lives. This fact completely devastates me and as I write these words, hot wet tears gush from my eyes in knowing what this means and I never want to forget.

It is my hope, that by sharing this personal narrative to induce some response from my fellow veterans, for in the sharing of stories among comrades, there is good therapy.

For me, this time of year is a catalyst for memories. After boarding an airplane from Flying Tiger Airlines at McCord Air force base, I landed at Da Nang, Viet Nam in South East Asia November 20, 1969. The moment the door of the airplane opened a flood of heavy, warm moist air enveloped the occupants like a wet blanket. Descending the stairway, and greeted by a sergeant asking if we had been here before, my negative answer landed me with a group that unloaded the cargo of the plane. Being new in country and not acclimated, we were immediately drenched in sweat from exertion. We found later, this was a benefit. The ride in the back of the trucks cooled us down and no personnel involved in unloading the plane had to attend any in-processing briefings.

From Nov. 20 to 22 arriving troops dispersed to their assigned units throughout the country. Some were trucked in open containers (cattle trucks) to closer destinations and some, including myself, spent many hours on hard benches waiting for announcements to catch a flight with available aircraft. If you fell asleep, you missed a flight and had to wait for the next one. Sometimes runways closed and you had to seek cover because of rocket and mortar attack. You were on your own to find your way to your assigned company, while the war churned around you. I felt completely exposed, having no weapons with me yet.

My flight out of Da Nang on a C-130 aircraft loaded with munitions was my only choice. I was the only passenger and the crew chief strapped me in in front of the cargo, right behind the pilots. The chief leaned over and told me to “just hang on” if there was a problem. Taxing out for departure the pilot pulled onto the runway; locked the brakes and proceeded to rev the engines to full throttle because of the weight of the explosives on board the craft. The plane was vibrating loudly and I was definitely hanging on. Releasing the brakes, the plane lurched and lumbered, using up the entire runway and we were off.

Arriving at Bien Hoa air base, near Saigon (now Ho Chi Min City) I was assigned a bunk and locker in a large staging facility, consisting of numerous wood framed buildings built next to the helicopter pads. Later, I found out this was not a good location. Spending the day of Nov. 24 walking around the compound avoiding officers and conversing with clerks and other personnel that had been in country for a while,  I discovered some important information. All new personnel were referred to as cherries; a derogatory term meaning you were the new guys or (FNGS), another more vulgar term. New guys were easy to spot, because we all wore new cloths and shiny new boots. I promptly found an equipment laundry and distribution center and traded all of my new stuff for a faded and scuffed look. I believe I encountered less hassle because of it.

The day was finished at the mess hall and in the enlisted men’s club (or local pub). After a long day exploring, I found my way back to the barracks before curfew and turned in early. Tomorrow was Thanksgiving and my first away from home and family.

At 3:00 am on thanksgiving morning, multiple sirens blared incessantly. The local Viet Cong had launched a rocket and mortar attack attempting to destroy the aircraft directly behind my sleeping quarters. Not knowing where the safety bunkers were or what else to do, I fell on to the floor, pulling two mattresses on top of me for protection and hoped for the best. Explosions erupted all around, blowing parts of the building into piles of rubble. Secondary explosions from burning aircraft fuel threw sheets of flame over some areas and ignited the dry wood from the buildings causing small infernos to erupt and incinerate some people trapped inside. The attack lasted perhaps five to seven minutes. The sounds were deafening, and explosions were close and unnerving causing some to have bleeding ears.                                           

More sirens and loud speakers announced it was over. After climbing out from under the mattresses, the uninjured assisted in clean up and looked for survivors.

The sky was clear as the sun rose and exposed the destruction from the attack. As it happens, 122 mm rockets are not easy to direct and launching in multiple salvos is the preferred method. The indiscriminate blast patterns not only destroyed aircraft and my sleeping quarters but the mess hall as well. The mess hall crew had worked the previous day setting up everything for our meal. A direct hit destroyed everything, which left us with freeze-dried food, and C rations for the day.

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Veterans Day with The Big Voice


Veterans Day was originally observed as Armistice Day - celebrating the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, when World War I allied countries signed an armistice with Germany in Compiègne, France, bringing to a close “the war to end all wars.” But was was not ended, and less than two decades later the world would find itself thrust back into international conflict. Armistice Day became Veterans Day in the United States, honoring service members of the armed forces both living and dead for their sacrifice.

On November 10th, 2018, one day before the centennial of the first Armistice Day, the Big Voice, together with Backyard BBQ and friends in Kettle Falls, will celebrate our troops with a special fundraising event on November 10. Country music band Brewers Grade out of The Dalles, Oregon,  will be playing a special concert at Backyard BBQ, with opening acts by Chipped & Broken and local USMC veteran Dylan Yeager.

Backyard BBQ is continuing their annual tradition of providing a free prime rib dinner to all U.S. Military Veterans (please bring proof of service) on November 10, starting at 3 P.M. The music starts at 4 P.M. in Backyard BBQ’s backroom, complete with dance floor, and there will be a $10 cover charge for the show - cover charge includes a raffle ticket to win amazing prizes including gift certificates, patriotic apparel and much more.

All funds raised go to support the American Freedom Fund Patriots Shooting Team, an all-veteran and active duty service member competitive shooting team, based out of Washington State, many local to the Colville/Kettle Falls area. The Patriots Shooting Team has competed in long range, multi-gun and trap shooting competitions, winning in multiple categories and building a stronger network between veterans in the local community as well as the competitive shooting world.

Come out on November 10 to support local veterans and enjoy dinner at Backyard BBQ, and stay for the music and dancing through the night. One Raffle ticket is included with cover charge, but you can earn extra entries with a donation to the American Freedom Fund at the event.

If you are interested in contributing as a sponsor of the event or making a tax-deductible donation to the American Freedom Fund online at www.americanfreedomfund.org or contact The Big Voice by email thebigvoice31@gmail.com or call 509.675.3504.

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THE BATTLE FOR OKINAWA FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF A YOUNG SAILOR

By Barry McCombs

On Easter Sunday, April 1st 1945, 73 years ago, the deadliest battle of the Pacific campaign began with a naval bombardment to the Island of Okinawa.  The battle would last for 82 days and result in horrendous casualties on both sides. Among the large flotilla of ships of the 5th fleet participating in the assault was the U.S.S. Vestal.  It had been anchored in Saipan and arrived a couple of weeks after the initial bombardment began. The Vestal was the oldest ship in the Navy, it could still be outfitted with sail and had an illustrious history.  At this time it had been made into a repair ship armed with smaller guns including anti-aircraft guns.

Pete McCombs at battle station turret gun

Pete McCombs at battle station turret gun

Among the gunners mates on this ship was a young sailor named Pete McCombs.  Following the example of his two older brothers he had joined the Navy as soon as he was old enough and had just turned 18 about a month before this battle began.  Pete recalled that the firepower levied against that island was such that he couldn’t believe anything could have survived it. Indeed that was the idea. It went on day and night until on a large part of the island the only thing left standing was an occasional bare stump of a tree. The 5 week battle to take Iwo Jima had resulted in 26,000 U.S. casualties while 21,000 Japanese had fought to the death and U.S. commanders were trying to do everything possible to avoid a similar struggle.  It didn’t work. The Japanese were just as determined to hold off the American advance from their homeland and had nearly 100,000 troops deeply dug into fortifications on this island. In the end the U. S. suffered 50,000 casualties in Okinawa. For the Japanese it was much worse. It is thought that 90 percent of them fought to the death and approximately 150,000 civilians died, some committing suicide rather than face the torture the Japanese propaganda assured them would happen if the Americans overtook the island.

The battle at sea was no less desperately fought.  Wave upon wave of Kamikaze pilots attacked the fleet.  Thirty-six ships were sunk, 368 were damaged and the Navy suffered the highest number of casualties in any single engagement, 12,000 sailors killed and 50,000 wounded.  McCombs manned an anti-aircraft gun during these continuous attacks. He said he would barely lay down in his bunk after fending off one of these attacks and the alarm siren would sound again, calling him to his battle station. His children can attest that the experience stayed with him, because years later he would wake them up on Saturday mornings blowing his boatswain’s pipe and calling out. “Now hear this! Now hear this! All hands on deck!  Man your battle stations!” He recalled that at one time during this period he operated his gun for 24 hours straight.

The training that Pete received as a gunners mate would seem very familiar to the video game generation of today.  The Navy had devised a way to use movie footage of planes and create a simulator that would react to a hit if the trainee fired a shot with a trajectory that would strike the target.  On the ships, guns were loaded with tracer bullets every so many rounds so the gunner could see where the ammunition was flying and adjust his aim accordingly. This created a problem when a suicide pilot could actually guide his plane by following the path of a tracer bullet back to the ship.  This probably wasn’t much of a factor at Okinawa because McCombs said that with so many guns firing from so many ships you couldn’t tell your tracers from the other ones being thrown up in the barrage of fire.

Pete McCombs, third from left in the back row.

Pete McCombs, third from left in the back row.

The only way to stop a kamikaze plane was to kill the pilot, causing the plane to veer off course, or to damage it sufficiently to make it inoperable.  These light planes could be shot full of holes without that happening. There had been suicide runs by pilots on both sides of the conflict. It was not unheard of for U.S. pilots to make a suicide run at a Japanese ship if they believed their plane would not make it back.  The Japanese had a historical and cultural heritage of suicide and for them the kamikaze attacks actually made numerical sense. Their experience told them that to score 12 hits towards the end of the war they had to send up 300 planes and 220 wouldn’t make it back. 60 planes piloted by kamikaze could make the same 12 hits.  

The other danger that the ships faced were suicide attempts by Japanese soldiers that would load a small raft with explosives and swim out into the harbor to attempt to blow a hole in the side of a vessel.  McCombs recalled being on sentry duty one night armed with a shotgun when his ship was approached by one of these rafts. He emptied the shotgun at the swimmer and then as the raft drifted slowly with the current between the other nearby ships he could hear sentries on the other ships continuing to fire away at it.

After the battle was over, McCombs was assigned to a detail that dove into the sunken ships in the harbor to retrieve the bodies of slain sailors.  This was a gruesome task as body parts would sometimes separate as they attempted to haul the corpses to the surface. The water in the harbor was covered in oil from the many sunken ships and planes, and McCombs told how when the detail would go into the galley to eat, the other sailors would get as far away from them as possible because of the stench they gave off from being immersed in those oily waters.

McCombs was bothered by the battle hardened response of some of the U.S. combatants to their experience and told how some had gathered bags of gold teeth from dead Japanese soldiers or would make a lamp out of a skull.  He made the observation that war brought out the natural inclinations of people, giving those that had sadistic characteristics the opportunity to exercise them while at the same time making those who were kind by nature more compassionate.  For McCombs, his war experiences seemed to have had the effect of intensifying his compassionate side as evidenced by the many acts of service he did for other people, including the most downtrodden, during the rest of his life.

The battle in Okinawa was the last battle that McCombs would participate in although not the his last experience with death and suffering  for he would see both again as he later served as a shore patrolman in post war Hong Kong. For the sailors on board the Vestal at this time, however, World War 2 ended unexpectedly when President Truman made the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki based in good part on the terrible death toll of Okinawa for both the Americans and the Japanese.  They had expected that the worst lay ahead of them as they knew the Japanese would not surrender and an attack on the mainland was imminent. Now they experienced the relief of knowing that they would probably make it home alive as they went about the task of repairing the many damaged vessels in the fleet.


“The Torch Be Yours To Hold It High”…

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It was the War To End All Wars. World War I officially came to a close on June 28, 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, but it was seven months earlier on November 11th that a broken and defeated Germany requested the armistice that brought an end to the gruesome bloodshed that redefined the rules of warfare for all of time. It was the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 when the Allies signed an armistice with Germany in allied leader Ferdinand Foch's railway carriage in the remote Forest of Compiègne, north of Paris.  

World War I saw the rise of automatic weapons, tanks, toxic gases, and for the first time in history, warfare in the air as planes and zeppelins were deployed on missions of destruction. Terms like “Shell Shock” and “Trench warfare” came into existence, and with them, the disturbing effects of disease and ongoing trauma that they carry. Nearly 10 million soldiers died in the First World War, soldiers from the sixteen nations involved in the conflict. Civilian losses in Europe reached nearly 9 million during the widespread destruction.

In 1915, from a battlefield near Ypres, Belgium, Canadian surgeon John McCrae penned the words to “In Flanders Field,” a poem that would establish the red poppy as a symbol of veterans, living and dead, over the generations.

In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae

 In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you, from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow,

In Flanders fields.