In a solemn memorial at Arlington National Cemetery today President Barack Obama, quoting scripture, reminded the assembled that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends—his country.
The president told the 5,000 assembled that those words were stamped on the dog tag of the first American killed in Afghanistan after the war officially ended last year.
“Most Americans don’t fully understand the sacrifice of the 1 percent of those who serve in our armed forces,” Obama said. “Few know what it’s like to take a bullet for a buddy, or to live with the fact that he or she took one for you,” he added.
Sunday night, the 26th annual Memorial Day Concert was held on the steps of the Capitol in Washington D.C. It is always a moving tribute to the fallen, but last night was particularly poignant and emotional.
Actors told the stories of a disabled Vietnam veteran, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and the two children of a fallen hero. These stories, in their own words, not only brought the place to tears, they underscored the fact that the spouses, children, parents and other loved ones of the fallen and disabled have sacrificed greatly for this nation as well.
Conspicuously absent from that concert or today’s ceremony at Arlington were the members of Congress who never served in uniform themselves but continually seek to send tens of thousands of others off to die in wars they or their children will not fight in. Their hypocrisy shall not diminish the service of these real American heroes to whom we owe everything.
Since the first battle of the Revolutionary War at Lexington, 1.5 million Americans gave up their lives in battle wearing a uniform, including 398,000 Confederate soldiers. In addition, thousands of Native American warriors also died fighting for their land in what is now the United States of America.
Today, we honor all of them.
Sadly, most Americans view Memorial Day as the last day of a three-day holiday kicking off summer. It is a day for picnics and parks; beaches and baseball. As they drive past American flags, flying half-mast before noon, then full staff, few even realize that were it not for the sacrifices of those 1.5 million, the flag might have been a Union Jack, a red Japanese sun, or a Nazi Swastika.
For the last 147 years, the nation has set aside the last Monday in May to remember those who gave their last full measure of devotion so that we can enjoy freedom and the lifestyle to which we are accustomed. They answered the call to duty, not questioning whether that call was righteous or not. They answered it because they loved their country so much they were willing to die for it without question.
We must also honor those who went to war and lived because no one returns from war unwounded or undamaged. We must also honor the wounded and broken.
According to statistics, there are 19.3 million living veterans in the U.S. including as many as 3 million with a war-related disability. Sadly, 621,000 veterans live in poverty on top of the 325,000 disabled veterans who live below the poverty line despite their service and sacrifice. In addition, 140,000 veterans are in prisons, mostly for violent crimes or drug offenses often due to PTSD or other trauma of war.
Worse still, many veterans came back from war unable to find jobs. Unemployment among veterans, particularly veterans of color, is higher than the national average. Every night, 50,000 veterans sleep on the street. During the year, 300,000 veterans will be homeless at one point. So many veterans find their lives so hopeless that they commit suicide. Tragically, 22 veterans commit suicide every day in America.
These are also fallen heroes.
So today, we need to pause, if only for a while, and honor the fallen, not only those who died on the battlefield, but those who survived and their loved ones. No one comes from war undamaged.
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