Ladies and gentlemen, fellow veterans . . . I want to thank you for caring enough to be here today. For like most Nevadans, you were given opportunities. The opportunity to join thousands at Lake Lahontan, enjoy the first warm days of summer at Lake Tahoe, work in your yard, or . . . But you chose this day and this moment to honor the service and sacrifices of our veterans. For these heroes sacrificed in the name of Democracy to assure us
But Memorial Day is not about trips to the beach, picnics, or sales at the mall. I’m not saying you couldn’t have fun this weekend, but take a moment to realize Memorial Day is special, and as Americans we should never forget why. For no other holiday is about honor, duty and the ultimate sacrifice. No other holiday pays tribute to those who have decided the United States is worth dying for.
Time and again – in blood and in suffering – young Americans secured a legacy of peace and liberty for us and for future generations. If we measure the price of freedom by the one million lives laid upon the altar of freedom since our nation’s founding, the cost is high indeed . . . but measured by the lives of generations to come . . . lives full of promise and hope yet untapped … the price for peace is beyond mortal reckoning. And it is this incalculable debt we owe to our defenders - past and present - living and dead.
To grasp the enormity of this debt, some would say we must understand the hardship, sacrifice, and scope of their experiences. Some veterans will tell you, until you walked a mile in their shoes, you can’t possibly imagine what they went through. Maybe it was frozen sleepless nights on the Chosin Reservoir. Perhaps it was the impenetrable forests of Vietnam, or the smoky skies of Kuwait. Each veteran has a unique story to tell. And the experiences of the Korean War soldier are different from that of the Panama soldier. Even the experiences of those fighting in Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom are different from their comrades in Operation
Let me save you a few thousand miles of footsteps and plenty of blisters. Let’s focus on what we have in common with these heroes. For you see, like them each and every one of us is a son or a daughter. Some of us call ourselves brothers or sisters. And perhaps others may be mother, father, grandmother, or grandfather. It is these family bonds that we can all relate to. It is these relationships I want you to draw on in order to understand a different viewpoint. For on this Memorial Day, at this moment, I urge you to not only think about the dead, but also those still living who have given their happiness. Who among us doesn’t shed a tear, even if only internally, at the playing of taps? Who has not been touched by the sight of a lonely widow and unknowing child standing beside the grave of their parent?
We may only see a fraction of the range of emotions they experience. But through the personal words and thoughts found in their letters, emails and messages our glimpse will provide immense insight into the true meaning of Memorial Day. Their words capture the panorama of emotions and thoughts we share this morning . . . sorrow, happiness, admiration, and love.
The personal valor of Sgt. Daniel Gionet is apparent when you learn he died from wounds incurred after an IED explosion. It is underscored when you hear his final orders to others, “Don’t deal with me.” he said, “Go help the lieutenant, he’s in greater danger than me.” Now as a mother, daughter, father or son, feel the personalized sorrow in his mother’s final letter to her son. Denise wrote, “The fact you turned the medics away and told them to take care of the others. I wish you’d been selfish just that once. That you’d put yourself before the others – but you couldn’t. I understand that now.” This grief of a mother torn between wanting her son home and appreciating his sacrifice is the sorrow we should take with us today.
In a letter to his new wife, 2nd Lt. James Cathey wrote, “There are no words to describe how much I love you and will miss you. I will also promise you one thing . . . I will be home. I have a wife and a new baby to take care of and you guys are my world.” There is nothing extremely unique about this letter, as it could have been written from the Pacific Islands, jungles of Panama, or beaches of Grenada. But it is different because, this war, unlike those of the past has a far greater number of parents like Lt. Cathey fighting for our freedoms. When 44 percent of the fighting force is made up of parents, it’s no wonder 700,000 children have either one or both parents deployed at any time. And today more than 1200 children in the United States have lost a parent in the Global War on Terror.
Together the remaining family will cope and search for bright spots and great futures with new guardian angels watching over them. Corporal Matthew Commons’ nephew Nick posted a note. “Uncle Matt I miss you. Mom and I talk about you a lot. I eat a lot of skittles to grow up a hero like you.” Lance Corporal Donald Cline’s family had a simple request, “We are going to the wall today. Maybe you could send us a sign. Nothing big . . . maybe something like lightning? That would be cool!”
And no one will forget the happiness of the past. Corporal Cline’s mother in law Tammie posted, “I miss your smile and that unforgettable laugh. Coming home and finding dented soup cans that you and Cory loved to use to see who had the stronger head. From the look of the cans I would say it was a tie.” Some of the messages talk of holidays lost and voids that will not be filled. In a note to Sgt. Eric Morris, his widow Jolene writes, “Baby, Happy Birthday and a very special valentines day. I had a dream about you, the sun was shinning the girls were playing and we were happy. I love you and your girls love you and miss you deeply. They hope you’re enjoying the candy and treats they leave for you.” But their sorrow deepens with every candy left for a daddy who won’t be hiding them in his pockets. And the children left behind will lose moments we often take for granted. In Jessica Blankenbecler’s email to her father two days after he was killed in Iraq she writes, “Little things I took for granted when you were here seem priceless now. One thing that I regret is when you wanted to open my car door for me, but I always got it myself. I wish I would have let you do it. And when you wanted to hold my hand, I sometimes would pull away because I didn't want people to see me holding my daddy's hand ... I feel so ashamed that I cared what people thought of me walking down the parking lot holding your hand. But now I would give anything just to feel the warmth of your hand holding mine.” She continues, “I have your military ring on right now. It's kind of big for my little finger, but it makes me feel you're holding my hand when I have it on.”
The sadness of a daughter whose father won’t be able to walk her down the aisle may pull at your heartstrings, but the grief of a mother whose child will never meet his father has no compare. For you see, as promised, 2nd Lt. James Cathey did come home but he is buried with his fellow veterans behind me here. The night before his funeral, his pregnant wife Katherine refused to leave the casket, asking to sleep next to him one last time. The
Marine honor guard made a bed for her, and before she fell asleep she listened to songs that reminded her of “Cat.” One of the Marines asked if she wanted them to remain on watch through the night. “I think it would be
kind of nice if you kept doing it,” she said. “I think that’s what he would have wanted.” If Lt. Cathey wanted them to remain on duty, every fallen hero should want us all to remain on duty watching over those they have
We share their sorrow, but we cannot know their grief. What we can do – must do as a nation – is remember those who have fallen and their families. Remember what they did; why they did it; and appreciate what that
sacrifice means to us. For it means freedom. It means security. It means strength, and the motivation to persevere in times of strife. To do any less – to not remember – would defile the very hopes and dreams of
those we honor today.
How is it possible to honor such men and women, both young and old? How can we honor those alive and dead?
Perhaps we should make certain their stories - your stories - are told to the young. Perhaps we should try to emulate their driven purpose and honorable lives. Perhaps the best we can offer would be to stand with the honor guard watching dutifully over the wives, husbands, sons and daughters these heroes left behind. For from this perspective, Memorial Day is truly about
honor, duty and the ultimate sacrifice.
May God bless our American heroes at home and in lands far away. May God bless the families of these patriots. And may God bless you for caring enough to be here today.