Memorial Day, for most of us, is a day of joy – parades, barbecues, family, and friends. We celebrate those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our great nation, our way of life, and our freedom. There was a time in my life where Memorial Day made me uncomfortable. Celebrating death felt odd. Throw in the hot dogs, the drunk Uncle, and the background swimming pools and the odd feeling becoming a disturbing one. I see things differently now.
Before, I explain how I see things differently now, all me to explain, as I see it, the realities of the sacrifices we honor on Memorial Day.
About 1.1 million Americans have died fighting in uniform. Statistics are literally mind numbing. They utterly fail us in our ability to comprehend the sacrifices that we are celebrating. We’ve each had (or will have had) a loved one pass away. The pain, confusion, and grief caused by these losses are beyond description. I pray that few of you have ever witnessed a person die in combat. Of the 1.1 million sacrifices we honor today, let’s grab just one person out of that statistic. Assume the actual number is 1,100,001 and we are going to grab that stray “1” and think about him for a moment.
Stay with me.
We’ll call him Tony. Tony was a star high school football player in Des Moines, Iowa and an excellent guitarist thanks to his grandfather’s tutelage. He enlisted in the Marines after High School to serve his country because Tony believed in America and he believed in the American Spirit — he was also tough as nails. After his first tour of duty, Tony married his High School sweetheart, Juliette. Juliette was a Middle School history teacher and a gifted painter. Their two boys, Michael and Joseph — twins, were toddlers whose days were filled with reckless abandon. Getting them to sit quietly through church each week was possible only through divine intervention.
One day, Tony had to leave home for a deployment. He and Juliette cried softly as they said goodbye. Michael and Joseph hugged their father goodbye and both were adamant in their one and only request – “Go get the bad guys, Daddy!”
Months later, Tony’s platoon was ambushed. Tony never had a chance. His wounds were fatal but his death was not immediate. He screamed and writhed in unspeakable pain as the black blood pooled out of his wounds. Surviving members of his platoon held his hand tightly as Tony bled out. His screams of pain softened into boyish cries for his mother, his wife, and his children . . . and then to whisper as he prayed to God as his mouth gushed blood. In his final moments on Earth, there was no hospital bed, friendly nurse attendant, or family gathering. He was thousands of miles away from his home, afraid, and alone save his brothers in arms who wept as they dutifully and delicately placed his corpse in a body bag.
War is hell. I didn’t enjoy writing that and I know you didn’t enjoy reading it. However, if you read the equivalent summary story of each unique 1.1 million sacrifices who we honor today, you would need 4 years without sleep to do so. That’s more than our feeble minds can comprehend.
We cannot possibly honor our fallen brethren by attempting to process the details of 1.1 million deaths, but we can think of people like Tony. Tony had hopes, dreams and a vision for his future. On the day of his death, he had no warning that those dreams were already placed squarely in the crosshairs of the enemy.
If Tony, from the other side, was watching your Memorial Day, how would he want you to celebrate? How would he want you to live? The answers to these questions explain my change of heart about Memorial Day. I don’t even know Tony because he’s a fictional character representative of the sacrifices we are honoring today, but I have a pretty good idea of what his answers would be. He would ask us to celebrate with joy and love. He would ask us to cherish every moment with our loved ones — along with each bite of our hot dogs and sips of our beer.
What is our obligation to Tony beyond today’s holiday? When he enlisted in the Marine Corps, he handed a check to our country. The check was written in the amount of “all I have, up to and including my life.” Tony didn’t die in excruciating pain in a foreign land because he wanted to. He died defending our nation and our way of life. I suspect if you asked Tony to answer that question for us, he would respond as Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Saving Private Ryan did – “Earn it.”
We “earn it” by living free where we stand. You don’t have to take up arms and fight the enemies that killed Tony. But you do have to claim your responsibility of doing whatever you can, whenever you can, wherever you are to carry on the American traditions that Tony graciously sacrificed himself for. What traditions? The traditions of chasing your destiny, helping your neighbors, leading your community, raising your family with values of honor, respect, and faith.
Tony died defending America from the enemies without but today the greatest threat to America, as Thomas Jefferson predicted, is from within. We are the defenders of freedom and liberty on the domestic front. How do we fight this front? Lead! Lead your family, your neighborhood, your community, your church, your city, your county, your state, and your nation by helping, mentoring, and honoring each other. The political stage cannot divide us, we need local leaders who recognize that we the people, with our God-given rights, hold the American Spirit in our hearts. This spirit, which knows no surrender, perseveres through all and is the bedrock of our freedom and liberty.
Happy Memorial Day! Have a cold one for Tony.