As we head into the holiday weekend, it is understandable that thoughts turn to the coming summer, the benefits of relaxation and relief from the confines of a West Virginia winter. We might not give a second thought to the notion that living in a free and secure country enables us to pursue not only a comfortable life, but also our individual destinies.
However, it is critical to remember that the opportunity for personal fulfillment for ourselves and our family is built upon a foundation of great sacrifice, without which our way of life would not be possible.
This Memorial Day is the appropriate time to pause and reflect on that sacrifice.
More than 1.3 million American service members have died in defense of the country. 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.
But just citing the numbers does not do justice to them. Each loss was a personal tragedy, a full life denied. Every one was a heartbreak for a family and a lifetime of sadness for what might have been.
James Garfield, who served as a Union officer in the Civil War and later would become the 20th U.S. President, spoke at the country’s first Memorial Day service (then called Decoration Day) on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery. He told the crowd of 5,000 that the country’s very nature is intertwined with the dead.
“I love to believe that no heroic sacrifice is ever lost; that the characters of men are molded and inspired by what their fathers have done; that treasured up in American souls are all the unconscious influences of their great deeds,” he said.
“Consider this silent assembly of the dead,” he went on. “Their voices will forever fill the land like holy benedictions. Here, let them rest, asleep on the Nation’s heart, entombed in the Nation’s love.”
Memorial Day is not only a time for remembrance, but also for reverence. Each of the dead leaves us with what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Union Army veteran and U.S. Supreme Court Justice, called, “The contagion of his courage.” We are inspired to be better because of what they have done.
Our debt to those who have died in service to the country is never fully repaid. It is ongoing and everlasting. And in remembering them we are humbled and awed by their sacrifice.