Memorial Day 2020: Remembering the sacrifice of the “best of America”

For most Americans Memorial Day this year will be different.  Many of those who might have wanted to pay tribute by visiting Arlington and other military cemeteries won’t be able to do so since pandemic precautions are causing authorities to limit visitors to family members wanting to visit the graves of loved ones.  However, the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Regiment – the legendary “Old Guard” – will still plant a flag at every headstone – 240,000 in all.  And, we can all honor the fallen this year.

Educate America about Memorial Day!

Maybe the place to start is by having Americans educate themselves as to what the day is all about.  A recent poll shows that “[m]ost Americans have no idea why we celebrate Memorial Day.”  I find that to be both heartbreaking and a shameful indictment of America’s educational system.

As readers of Lawfire® may recall from the 2018 post “Memorial Day: Honoring those who gave up two lives,” Memorial Day commemorates the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military, while Veterans Day (Nov 11), which is also a public holiday, is intended to honor all American veterans.  (You may also want to look at this 2016 post: “A few words about Memorial Day and more” for other details about the day.)

The unique nature of the sacrifice

Any loss of life is tragic, especially for the families and friends of the deceased.  When someone dies in uniform in a nation where so few serve, the sacrifice is special.  Last year (“Memorial Day 2019…and D-Day 1944”) I mentioned President Barack Obama’s 2009 Memorial Day remarks wherein he expressed the uniqueness of the sacrifice of those he called “the best of America.” He rhetorically asked:

“What tugs at a person until he or she says “Send me”?  Why, in an age when so many have acted only in pursuit of the narrowest self-interest, have the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of this generation volunteered all that they have on behalf of others?  Why have they been willing to bear the heaviest burden?

Whatever it is, they felt some tug; they answered a call; they said “I’ll go.” That is why they are the best of America, and that is what separates them from those of us who have not served in uniform — their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met.”

Similarly, in his Proclamation on Prayer for Peace, Memorial Day, 2020 President Trump described the special nature of sacrifice “of these patriots” and reminded everyone that “they sacrificed to create a better, more peaceful future for our Nation and the world.”  He called upon Americans to “recommit to realizing that vision, honoring the service of so many who have placed love of country above all else.”

It’s often the young who die

Since the nation’s founding, over 1,354,000 have died in wars and other operations.  In the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, over 7,000 American military personnel have died. Those who died since 9/11 were mostly young. 78% of those killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and 75% who died in Operations Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), were age 30 or under.

Time to recognize the women who have paid the ultimate price

It’s sometimes overlooked, but at least 172 of those who died in our post-9/11 conflicts were women.  One was Captain Kimberly Hampton (pictured on the right) who was the first female American military pilot to be killed by hostile fire when she was shot down in Iraq in 2004.

Why not make a special effort this year to honor women who died in the service?  Please spend a few minutes watching this video: “A Tribute to our Fallen Female Heroes” 

The Gold Star families

Honoring those who died is also a way to recognize the sacrifice of the “Gold Star” families of the fallen and perhaps aid in their continued healing.  The United Services Organization (USO) explains that the title “Gold Star” families:

reserved for families of military members who have died in the line of duty, is meant to honor the service member’s ultimate sacrifice while acknowledging their family’s loss, grief and continued healing.

Similarly, Memorial Day honors not just those who were killed in battle, but all those who have died on active duty.  The USO points out that:

According to a Military Times articlesince 9/11, more than 16,000 troops have died in non-combat circumstances and 7,000 died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone. There are also thousands of living Gold Star Family members who lost loved ones in WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and other conflicts throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

LT Lin

Here at Duke Law we tragically lost Rich Lin, a truly fantastic young man and a graduate of the class of 2016 in May of 2017 while he was serving on active duty as a Navy Judge Advocate.  I attended his interment at Arlington, and I still feel his loss today.  (“A Life Too Short Leaves a Lesson and Legacy”)

Let’s never forget that, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley put it, “For families of the fallen, every day is Memorial Day.” Consider reaching out to a Gold Star family if you know one; remind them you haven’t forgotten and that you care about them.

How can we honor the fallen this year?

In his Proclamation, the President, in accordance with U.S. law, made this request:

There are many additional ways we can honor those who have fallen (my wife has suggestions on her blog here).  Additionally, Military Times reporter Diana Stancy Correll has gathered information as to how you can commemorate the day online.

As you mark this Memorial Day with family and friends, or you think about good times in the past, and the promise of future ones, pause.  Remember the sacrifices of those who went into harms way for your freedom but never came home. Consider a prayer for their families and friends. Think of their empty seat at the dinner table, picnic bench or under the beach umbrella and be grateful. So very grateful. 




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