News & Politics

An Early Internet Meme Found Its Way Onto a Houston World War II Memorial

Digging into the provenance of a provocative message carved into a shrine to fallen soldiers.

war memorial
Photograph by John Lomax

At the epicenter of the Houston Heights neighborhood, in the median of Heights Boulevard at the corner of busy West 11th Street, stands a World War II memorial. Installed in 1999 and expanded in 2001, most of it is standard fare for a monument to veterans of armed conflict. There’s a wall bearing the names of the thousands who served, wrapping around a semicircle at the center of which stands a pylon where the names of those killed in action are engraved.

Recently I read a message chiseled into the monument’s stone that I’d never noticed on my previous visits:

When the country has been in need, it has always been the soldier! It’s the soldier, not the newspaper, who has given us freedom of the press.

It’s the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.

It’s the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to demonstrate.

It’s the soldier, who salutes the flag and serves under the flag. It’s the soldier, whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.

This “In your face, hippies, poets, flag burners, and unpatriotic reporters” rhetoric struck me as clashing with the “We’re in this together against evil” ethos of most World War II monuments.

Yes, soldiers play a significant role in protecting our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Memorializing those who’ve fought for our country is honorable. But bestowing upon “the soldier” a monopoly on the right to hand out free society’s supreme blessings is something else entirely.

Behind the words on that monument lies a tangled tale of how both meaning and modes of communication change. As it turns out, an old-fashioned letter to the editor can become spammy inbox fodder—one of those “FW:FW:FW SEND THIS TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!” emails—and then make it back into the print media and finally wind up set in stone, having been altered along the way.

The Houston Heights memorial identifies the message’s author as “Father Denis Edward O’Brien, USMC,” though his name was apparently added sometime after the words were initially attributed to “Unknown,” a change the memorial’s keepers were unsuccessful in concealing entirely.

Photograph by John Lomax
Photograph by John Lomax
Photograph by John Lomax
Top: Photograph by John Lomax

Father Denis O’Brien, born and raised in Dallas, was a priest and a Marine, but never at the same time. O’Brien dropped out of the seminary to enlist in the Marines and served honorably in the Pacific Theater before returning home and resuming his priestly studies at the end of World War II. After his ordination, over a half-century as a missionary, O’Brien ministered to the needy and infirm in Mexico and East Africa before returning to Dallas in 1988. From then until his death in 2002, he was a priest in residence at St. Pius X Catholic Church in the Casa View neighborhood of East Dallas.

So O’Brien was back in America when “It’s the Soldier” made what internet sleuths believe to be its print debut. That came in a letter to the editor by one Paul G. Gillespie that appeared on February 3, 1991, in the Tampa Bay Times. The context was America’s involvement in the Gulf War—specifically, how much dissent to the war effort should be condoned. Here is the text of that letter, in full (the italics are mine):

“People seem to forget that the soldier, not the journalist, has preserved the freedom of the press. The soldier, not the poet, has preserved freedom of speech. The soldier, not the campus organizer, has preserved the freedom to demonstrate. Young people today speak of peace—I ask you what is peace without freedom? The point, of course, is that a real peace must include freedom, and, for the time being, we must maintain armed forces to ensure that freedom.”

“It’s the Soldier” next popped up twice again in 1993, months apart, in wildly varying context—this time with O’Brien’s name attached. In June of that year, the late Dallas Morning News columnist Jim Wright—himself a proud Marine who served in the fifties—wrote in a profile of Dallas’s fighting priest that O’Brien delivered those words at a Memorial Day invocation that year. By then, it had picked up the hot-button stanza about flag burning and also, significantly, a shift of the action verb. Now the soldier gives, rather than preserves, those cherished freedoms—or, in the case of flag burning, merely allows it. Rather than Gillespie’s soldiers protecting freedoms, all later versions portray soldiers granting them.

By August 1993, “It’s the Soldier” had wandered up to Kansas, where it landed on the front page of The Council Grove Republican, via an advertorial purchased by a man named Ira W. Austin. While the words were identical to those reported by Wright, Austin attributed them to “Author Unknown,” and in this case, “It’s the Soldier” was a mere preamble to Austin’s real intent: a lambasting of newly elected president “Slick Willie Clinton.” After that, from 1993 to 1998, it mostly circulated in the social media of that quaint era—forwarded emails and online newsgroups.

“It’s the Soldier” got a boost after November 1998, when O’Brien included it in an article under his byline in the Hilltop Times, an Air Force paper serving Hill Air Force Base near Ogden, Utah. The article is 100 percent plagiarism. The “It’s the Soldier” lines are clumsily tacked on to the end of a much longer piece about how veterans hide in plain sight—words identical to a 1995 Veterans Day column from the Richmond Times-Dispatch by Anthony Barton Hinkle. His “What Is a Vet?” is so popular there that the paper reruns it each year.

Nobody likes to call a patriotic priest a plagiarist, even when he’s caught in the act, red-white-and-blue-handed, as it were, which could be why neither Hinkle’s wife nor the International War Veterans Poetry Archive explicitly do so here, even as they forcefully clarify Hinkle’s authorship of “What Is a Vet?”

Even that rebuke would only come years after the priest’s death. In the meantime, his alleged authorship of “It’s the Soldier” saw him basking in a small measure of fame when it finally hit the mainstream in a big way. Ann Landers ran it on patriotic holidays in her nationally syndicated column not once but twice—in 1999 and 2001—each time attributing it to O’Brien, in Landers’s words, “a clergyman who is a member of the Marine Corps.” (Bizarrely, her 1999 column included both “What Is a Vet?,” which was not attributed to Hinkle or anyone else, and “It’s the Soldier,” which was attributed to O’Brien.) If O’Brien ever disclaimed ownership of “It’s the Soldier,” apparently Landers never got the message. Nor did he ever publicly admit to not writing “What Is a Vet?”

Adding to the saga, another author has emerged to stake a claim on “It’s the Soldier.” This would be Charles M. Province, an Army veteran, retired computer operator, thespian, playwright, author, and lay historian whose specialty is General George S. Patton. Province only started asserting his claim to “It’s the Soldier” after Father O’Brien had passed away. Province is presented as the author on WikiQuote, where the proof offered of his authorship is a link back to a page on Province’s own Patton website and the fact that it went into the Congressional Record under his name in 2003. (Again, after O’Brien had died.) Simply put, it’s a feedback loop, and a short one at that.

On that page, you’ll also see that some Korean War veterans in northeastern Kansas renamed “It’s the Soldier” as “Freedom’s Flag,” attributed it to Province, and gave it pride of place on their war memorial. The words too have been altered, yet again. “Reporter” replaces “newspaper,” there’s an additional line about how it’s not lawyers but “the soldier” who give us the right to a fair trial, and it’s lacking the “When the country is in need…” preamble of the Houston version.

That’s one problem with erecting monuments based on internet memes or chain emails—there is no single, definitive text to quote from, as there is, say, with the Gettysburg Address. Via email, I asked Province to send his version, which follows here:

It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus agitator
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Which is not what is written on the memorial in Kansas under his name nor the one in Houston under O’Brien’s, but there it is, for anyone who wants to use what Province has declared to be the realest, truest edition.

Province tells me in our email exchange that he wrote the poem while he was in the Army in the 1960s. Maybe Gillespie, the Florida letter writer, read or heard it spoken and mailed it to his local paper with “give” changed to “preserve.” Maybe. But where did O’Brien get hold of it? Was he visiting Florida in 1991? Did Gillespie’s letter run elsewhere? Right now, those are questions without answers, because if there’s printed proof that Province wrote that poem earlier than 1991, he did not furnish it to me. (Language maven and onetime Texan Barry Popik presented this fact on his website in 2015 in his entry on “It Is the Soldier,” and Province has not disputed that, either.) Nor did Province have an answer when I asked him why he didn’t speak up when his work was published in Ann Landers’s column twice under O’Brien’s name.

He also told me that he was unaware of the Houston memorial’s mistaken attribution to O’Brien and asked me for contact info, which I furnished him with. I asked whether the persistence of what he claims is the myth of O’Brien’s authorship was a fight he was still interested in carrying on. “When I find a problem, I normally contact the person in error and let them know,” he wrote. “With the internet, however, it’s a never-ending job.”

Just how and when “It’s a Soldier” found its way onto the memorial is another story for another time. Tom English, chairman of the Charitable Foundation of the Rotary Club of Houston Heights, the group that oversees and maintains the memorial, doesn’t have the answers to those questions, but he is interested in seeing to it that they are accurately attributed. “We want it to be right,” he says. “As time has washed away some of the recollections of how, where, when, and who, we welcome an opportunity to revisit that and come back and just make that better, make it right.”

We should all be more careful about what we choose to chisel into stone. Getting to the truth in the internet age is, as Province says, a never-ending job.


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