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Remembering and honoring the ultimate sacrifice

(Today’s commentary is a reprint of one previously posted on Memorial Day.)

Memorial Day, which we celebrate today, grew out of the immense loss of the Civil War. Between 1861 and 1865, 600 men died every day on average, for a final death toll of at least 625,000.

There was not a community in the still-young country that did not suffer loss, prompting Americans to spontaneously commemorate their sacrifice.  By 1868, many of the remembrances were united on one day, May 30th, which was then called “Decoration Day,” and later Memorial Day.  (In 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving Memorial Day to the last Monday in May.)

While it is appropriate for a grateful country to honor its service men and women at any time, and while Veteran’s Day is specifically for that purpose, Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who died during their service.

There are many.

Through all the wars, conflicts, skirmishes, terrorist attacks and, yes, even peace keeping missions, more than 1.3 million American service men and women have died; another 1.5 million have been wounded.  At least 38,000 Americans are still missing in action, the majority of them (30,000) from WWII.

The magnitude of the loss must be fully understood.

Just citing the numbers does not do them justice. Each had a name and a hometown, friends and family, hopes and aspirations.  None set out to die on a far away battlefield, but that was their fate. War survivors often return home with guilt, wondering why they made it through while so many others did not.

Our debt to them is never fully repaid. It is ongoing, a requirement of the benefits we receive as citizens of a free and secure country.  If, one day, we forget about Yorktown, Gettysburg, Omaha Beach, Inchon, Hamburger Hill, Fallujah, Kunar Province and thousands of other places where Americans have shed their blood, we will cease to be a great nation because we will have taken their sacrifice for granted.

So on Memorial Day we stop and think of them, whether we are soldiers who lost comrades in arms or civilians who value their sacrifice and search for ways to repay them.  This occasion also serves to inspire us.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was a soldier for the Union Army in the Civil War and later  became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, said in an 1895 Memorial Day address, “At the grave of a hero we end, not with sorrow at the inevitable loss, but with the contagion of his courage; and with a kind of desperate joy, we go back to the fight.”

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