- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2008


This Memorial Day, like others before it, we will honor the memory of those who have fallen in battle. But I also hope we take time to honor their lives.

Because if Memorial Day is really about anything, it’s about life. It’s about bravery and camaraderie. It’s about courage and calm. It’s about laughter and tears and fear and joy, all the things that make us human. To truly observe Memorial Day is to observe the life these heroes lived, and to pledge ourselves to live ours accordingly.

Army Cpl. Jessica Ellis of Lakeview, Ore., was one such hero. She loved life so much, she became an Army medic, deploying to Iraq not once but twice. “I’m there for my buddies,” she told her father. And there, this month in Baghdad, while assigned to the 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Jessica was killed. A roadside bomb ripped through her vehicle. She was 24 years old.

What people remember most about Jessica is her personality, her spirit. High school principal Bob Nash called her the “most friendly kid you’d ever want to meet.” Her track coach said you couldn’t help but love her. Steve Ellis, Jessica’s dad, told a reporter that she was always the cheerful one. “One of Jessica’s special gifts,” he said, “is her sunny and easygoing disposition. She always saw the bright side of things.” One supposes that this is exactly how she’d liked to be remembered, not for her tragic death but for the way in which she lived — not for the life she lost, but for the ones she saved. Jessica knew fear and faced it. She knew suffering and eased it. She was truly there for her buddies.

We can be there for her this Memorial Day. We can and should be there for her family and the families of all those who died defending our freedom. It could be as simple as just checking in on them from time to time, making sure they don’t need anything. It could mean donating our talents to a veteran’s group or charity, or helping out with car pool duties and homework.

We can honor the sacrifice of the fallen by making sure those left behind get the support they need to carry on. I would extend this to our wounded as well, whose lives have likewise been changed forever. Some have injuries we see; others have injuries we can’t see and may never know are there.

We must improve our ability to identify and treat the trauma of war, both physical and mental. We must work hard to better understand the great toll taken by combat on those who survive it.

Our system is good at focusing on the disability side of things, the benefits and payments and treatments. That needs to continue, obviously. But we also need to focus on “ability,” on what these returning warriors and their families need to do and want to do with the rest of their lives. I’m not sure we’ve even begun to scratch at that surface yet.

There is, I am convinced, a sea of goodwill out in the country of people and places yearning to help. We need to tap into it. We need to make that connection. We need to come up with new ways and new ideas to make life better for those affected by this war, so that kids can go to school, incomes can be sustained and homes can be both purchased and lived in for a long time.

The truth is, we live in deeds, not days; in actions and thoughts and feelings, not heartbeats. If the untimely battlefield deaths of generations of American heroes have taught us nothing else, it should be this unalterable fact: What you do with your time here on earth is far more important than the time you had to do it.

Those who live most are those who love most, who act the noblest and do their best. Memorial Day gives us another chance to honor those who lived most and acted noblest, just like Jessica Ellis. I hope we take it.

Adm. Mike Mullen is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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