By Stephen T. Messenger
May 31, 2021
Memorial Day evokes a wide range of emotions across our Nation. Many consider this holiday to be the unofficial beginning of summer. The grill comes out, the lawn games appear, and the fun begins. Some take their first seasonal vacation and spend time at the lake, beach, or park. Others have to work and barely even designate Memorial Day as different from any other Monday. Unfortunately, life sometimes has a way to overshadow the unprecedented sacrifice our military has made to keep this Nation’s freedoms intact.
If you look closely, there are families and friends spending today in deep sadness and sorrow, staring at the gold star hanging in their window or a living room portrait of their fallen warrior. These images remind them of loved ones who never returned home from war, or a friend who may have died heroically saving their own life. Many others proudly remember their ancestors who served and perished, defending our Nation and our world from injustice and tyranny.
At 22 years old, Marine Corporal Jason Dunham was on a convoy in Husaybah, Iraq in 2004. After hearing small arms fire in the city and moving his squad towards the sound of the guns, an insurgent attacked him, resulting in a hand-to-hand struggle. During the fight, Corporal Dunham saw the insurgent release a grenade that endangered his fellow Marines. He first warned his squad and then covered the grenade with his helmet and body, saving the lives of at least two of his friends; he made the ultimate sacrifice.
In his Medal of Honor ceremony, President George W. Bush stated that Corporal Dunham “gave his own life so that others may live.” What a profound statement. America has seen over 1.1 million combat deaths from the Revolutionary War to the War in Afghanistan. Each one of these service members has echoed President Bush’s statement—they died so that we may live.
Nine days ago, I walked the battlefield at Gettysburg and stood where Colonel Joshua Chamberlin from the 20th Maine Union Army gave the order to fix bayonets and charge downhill against an attacking Confederate Army. His heroic leadership, while resulting in the death of some of his men, helped save the battle and keep our Nation united. Nine months ago, I walked the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery where this large plot of land hosts the final resting place of heroes who died, beginning in the Civil War and every war since.
It’s sobering to walk hallowed grounds such as these. Markers are everywhere representing the death of men and women who fell in battle. They represent the ultimate payment—it is humbling to think that they were willing to die on our behalf, and many are still willing today.
We must never forget this sacrifice. Every year, less and less Americans are connected to military service. Over the past two decades, the number of veterans in the United States declined by one-third to 18 million service members. That makes up only 7% of the adult population. Military service no longer permeates into every town as during draft years, and today’s military instead comprises family heritage and individual military decisions. Fewer families and communities are linked directly to these courageous service members.
Thankfully, we live in a Nation that still honors our heroes. From first responders to COVID medical personnel to essential workers, America recognizes selfless service. No act is greater than dying to save others. While Corporal Dunham laid down his life for his squad, he also laid down his life for us. He died, so that we may live.
Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address affirmed the importance of sacrificial nature: “That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this Nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The world needs American sacrifice—since 1775 it always has, and always will.
It’s perfectly fine to enjoy Memorial Day Weekend with friends and family. In fact, we honor those who died for our freedoms by enjoying what they have provided. But at the same time, we must never forget the sacrifice. Thank you for taking time today to honor the fallen in your own way.