Memorial Day is for honoring, remembering and celebrating America’s departed Soldiers and all of her service members. Truly, this is a time to set aside the cares of the world and worries of the future – a time to look back in gratefulness and bring briefly to living memory the fallen heroes of our country: the men and women whose service and sacrifice have kept America safe and free.
Distinct from Veterans Day in November, where we celebrate our living veterans – those who have, and still do, place themselves between our loved ones and war’s destruction – we reserve Memorial Day as an annual pause to commemorate our honored fallen.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed, “In the full tide of spring, at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life – there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death.”
My own heart is heavy as I remember the 36 Georgia Guardsmen who have lost their lives combating terror on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 5 years. And my heavy heart goes out to those 36 families and communities who are still suffering from their loss.
Yet, these brave citizen-soldiers – and all of America’s fallen – made the conscious choice to serve their state and nation, even though they knew it might cost them their lives.
Certainly, the lives of our 36 fallen Georgia Guardsmen – and the thousands of other men and women who have died to bring stability to the Middle East – were not sacrificed in vain. Though the wars there are not concluded, the people of Afghanistan and Iraq have been jarred loose from under the oppressive thumb of tyrant regimes.
In Afghanistan, where Georgia’s 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team just concluded a yearlong deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghan women are now attending and graduating from Police Academies. They are carrying weapons and assisting as police patrol officers in the security measures of a system that, before the war, denied many of them the right to vote, work, go to school or even choose their own partners in marriage.
I am confident that the women of Afghanistan will not take these new freedoms for granted and will rise to the challenge as opportunities are afforded to them. It was only 190 years ago that women in our own nation were allowed to vote and own property, and just 34 years since they were allowed to attend the service academies and commission as officers. It often takes decades of unwavering perseverance to completely change a culture, but the soldiers who have fought so hard in Afghanistan and Iraq can be proud of the spark of change they have wrought.
As we reflect on Memorial Day I encourage you to ask yourself a couple fundamental questions: What is it that inspires and enables ordinary citizens to rise to the challenge of battle, to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in service to their country?
In my opinion, the answer is values. The proud legacy of our Army – and our country – is grounded in these core values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless-service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.
During their recent deployment to Afghanistan, the 48th Infantry Brigade lost eight brave soldiers on the field of battle. I had the honor of knowing several of them. These eight heroes embodied those values.
What is it that motivates soldiers like these to respond and contribute wherever and whenever called upon to do so?
When I look at what my three daughters have accomplished, I am so very grateful for this land of opportunity. I am proud to be the granddaughter of Italian immigrants who came to this country through Ellis Island in the early 1900s. Despite the perilous journey and the fear of starting in a new land, my grandparents were drawn to this land of freedom and the dream for a better life for their children. My uncles all served as American soldiers in WWII and wore their medals proudly. I cherish their gift to me. It motivates me to be a strong servant leader to my soldiers and this great nation I love.
I suspect the motivations for service are as various as the number of people serving, but I am certain that those who chose to serve are united by their love for liberty.
General Colin Powell once remarked that when you look back at our nation’s history, there is a recurring theme: we come not to conquer, but to free nations. Neither Iraq, nor Afghanistan, nor Germany, nor Vietnam, nor Korea, nor Japan, nor the Philippines are represented by a star on our flag. The only foreign soil we require is that which is needed to bury our fallen soldiers.
These fallen knew that freedom must be protected, that – in the absence of fervent defense – freedom is perishable. Because of our soldiers’ service and sacrifice, our great nation has proudly secured liberty for a substantial share of the world’s population and defended it for much of the rest.
As John Stewart Mill once poignantly noted, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.”
Without the men and women who have died in the service of this great nation, the United States of America – and the beacon of freedom it represents – could have perished from the earth any number of times, and the fortunes of the world would have been left to the wills of tyrants and dictators.
Every time our soldiers go to war, I am simultaneously saddened by the truism that the future of liberty will demand more gravestones, yet encouraged by the knowledge that America’s sons and daughters continue to answer Lady Liberty’s call.
So we remember and pay respect to those who marched before us to secure our freedoms and died in that ultimate service. These heroes believed in a concept greater than themselves, a concept that constitutes their permanent legacy: the prize of freedom.
Maria L. Britt
(Brig. Gen. Britt is commanding general of the Georgia Army National Guard)