By a coincidence of the calendar, our military academies hold their annual graduation ceremonies on or about Memorial Day weekend. The juxtaposition is especially poignant if you visit a service academy on graduation weekend.
Hundreds of our young, all of them models of American youth, count down the few remaining hours of four years of prodigious effort. They are fit, intelligent, polite, highly motivated and full of life. They are embarking on careers of service to the nation. All voluntarily chose this path, fully realizing the dangers involved in pursuing a military vocation. It is sobering to see them in the bloom of youth while knowing that most will be sent overseas, where they will place their lives at risk to preserve our freedoms.
Memorial Day has a special poignancy for a nation at war. Every week, more Americans make the supreme sacrifice. Air Force 1st Lt. Roslyn L. Schulte, 25, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2006 with academic and military honors. She deployed to Afghanistan in February 2009 to help train the Afghan National Army in her specialty of military intelligence. Lt. Schulte died on May 20 near Kabul, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device. She was the first female Air Force Academy graduate killed by an enemy combatant.
Americans fall in locations with exotic names, in countries that a decade ago few predicted would be host to thousands of American troops. Marine Sgt. James R. McIlvaine, 26, of Olney and Staff Sgt. Mark A. Wojciechowski, 25, of Cincinnati, fell during combat operations in Al Anbar province, Iraq, on April 30. The next day, Army Sgt. James D. Pirtle, 21, of Colorado Springs and Specialist Ryan C. King, 22, of Dallas, Ga., gave the last full measure of devotion near the village of Nishagam, in Konar province, Afghanistan. Al Anbar and Konar may not be household names, but previous generations had never heard of Guadalcanal or Bastogne before they became eternally linked with America’s martial legend. Likewise St. Mihiel or Antietam, or any other locales whose names resonate with sacrifices made in freedom’s cause.
Few Americans are touched personally by the ongoing conflicts overseas. The vast majority have no direct contact with the war in any form, much less knowing someone who fell. They enjoy freedoms hard won and preserved by people they have, for the most part, never met; they are as unaware of the deaths of these people as they were of their lives. Nevertheless, for every name there is a story of dreams, of duty, of a life cut short. Staff Sgt. Leroy O. Webster, 28, of Sioux Falls, S.D.; Petty Officer 2nd Class Tyler J. Trahan, 22, of East Freetown, Mass.; and Staff Sgt. Esau I. De la Pena-Hernandez, 25, of La Puente, Calif., all gave their lives within the past few weeks to preserve our freedoms.
A society as blessed as ours - its people safe even while at war, prosperous even amidst economic crisis - needs to be reminded that such blessings come at a cost. Memorial Day is a time to remember, but it is more than that. Good men and women go off to war on our behalf, and some do not return. On Memorial Day, we observe more than the fact that people died, but also how their deaths came to pass, and in what cause. We commemorate not just their sacrifice, but the context that gives meaning to both the fate they suffered and the lives they led. We recognize the commitment to selfless service that brought them to a fateful day in an out-of-the-way place they had never heard of before they died there. Memorial Day is not simply about remembering our fallen; it is a day when we should fully and properly express our gratitude. Remember them, honor them and thank them. We owe them more than we know.