There is no observance in America more somber than Memorial Day. In events held across America this Memorial Day weekend, people will gather in small villages and great cities for one purpose: to remember our war dead, pay to homage to their sacrifice and courage, and to recall the selflessness that embodies military service. Indeed, throughout Europe, Africa and the Pacific Islands, Americans and our foreign friends alike pay their respects by visiting our Nation’s many cemeteries abroad.
This year, as in years past and years to come, the Department of Veterans Affairs plays a key role in these observances. On Memorial Day, millions of Americans gather on the pastoral lawns of our 128 national cemeteries, crisscrossed row upon row with markers over the final resting places of some of our nation’s most courageous citizens. By virtue of scale, solemnity and serenity, it is moving beyond words, and brings home the supreme cost of defending democracy.
Across the generations – indeed, across the centuries – Americans have answered the call to duty and many paid the ultimate price. The America we know today would not be the same were it not for the men and women we honor on Memorial Day.
But the true meaning of Memorial Day eclipses American history. Much of the contemporary history of the world was shaped and molded by the tens of millions of American veterans who put their lives on hold to wear the uniform. Who among us could even begin to contemplate the world today had courageous defenders of freedom not stood fast against the scourge of Nazi fascism or ruthless imperialism in the Pacific?
The latest generation of American veterans is engaged in a struggle no less critical to history than those of their predecessors. Everyday, young men and women are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan after service in harms way. Most come home to joyous reunions with loved ones and revel in the collective sigh of relief that marks a safe return. Others come home with the visible and invisible wounds that are the tragic hallmarks of armed conflict, while still others return in solemn, eternal repose beneath a draped American flag.
I am indescribably proud of the people of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the service they provide to this community of Veterans. The value and importance of their work is evident every day in the faces of the Veterans we serve. Whether it’s the gritty determination of a patient undergoing rehabilitative therapy at one of our VA medical centers, the ear-to-ear grins of a veteran and his family buying their first home with a VA loan guarantee, or a young veteran entering college because of expanded VA benefits under the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the Veterans we serve are our inspiration to live up to Abraham Lincoln’s promise, “to care for him who has borne the battle.”
Through their spirit, adherence to duty and honor – and yes, their sacrifice – our Veterans have paid for and delivered the freedom and security not only we Americans enjoy, but that lived by increasing millions around the world.
This is why we pause and remember Memorial Day – this year and every year. We remember those who have paid the ultimate price for America and all humanity, and we also reflect on the achievements wrought by their sacrifice. Life and liberty are God-given rights, but throughout history, the task of defending these high ideals has fallen to ordinary men and women of extraordinary courage and fortitude.
Their perseverance and loyalty to a higher calling is central to what and whom we honor each Memorial Day. Let us never forget those who have fallen and the immeasurable good for which they have laid down their lives.
Let us never stop educating our youngsters about the price that has been paid for their freedom. A trip with them to one of our sacred shrines – our Veterans cemeteries – is a good place to start.