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Memorial Day 2011

I am spending Memorial Day this year surrounded by United States Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Since I arrived here last year, there have been dozens of “Ramp Ceremonies”, acknowledging the sacrifice of one or more Marine’s lives as they are transferred with honor and reverence from incoming rotary wing aircraft to fixed wing aircraft, to make their final journey home.

I have lived through more than 50 Memorial Days in my lifetime. My folks used to call it “Decoration Day” which was the original name of the commemorative day, and referred to the fact that it was a day that had been set aside to decorate the graves of Union soldiers following the Civil War. These days of course, Memorial Day (celebrated on the last Monday of May) honors the men and women who died while serving in the American military in any war. It was officially designated a national holiday by Congress in 1971. Each year on Memorial Day a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time.

For more than 400 years, America’s participation in wars has shaped US policy, and tested the mettle of our leaders as well as our men and women in uniform. It has cost many thousands of lives, and impacted many hundreds of thousands more. It has enlarged and defined our borders, deterred or stopped the advance of totalitarian regimes, and ended the brutal slaughter of millions by maniacs like Adolph Hitler. America hasn’t always won; we certainly didn’t win in Viet Nam, and the value of our actions in places like Korea is often brought into question. It’s also true that America isn’t at all consistent about when we do and when we do not get involved. Endless intervention into the national affairs of every country with a crackpot dictator would bankrupt the United States. Enemy size is also a factor. It is far less likely that the United States will directly intervene when it comes to repressive civil actions (like the events surrounding Tiananmen Square) in China than it will in similar circumstances in other nations such as Haiti. There are many other determinants as well of course, such as geographic proximity to the United States, governmental stability, and level of threat to US security if things went really bad (Do they have nuclear weapons?). It’s a difficult balancing act, with countries forming formal and informal alliances and undertaking both overt and covert actions to influence others, to understand and respond appropriately to every significant change on the world stage.

Everyone gets to second-guess the decision to go to war. That decision can never be made capriciously; it is, perhaps, the single most important and world-altering decision possible. It almost always defines in large measure the presidency of those Chief Executives unfortunate enough to be in that position on that fateful day. Like most major decisions, it can never be fully and finally determined to be right or wrong – it’s hard to imagine that those whose husbands and sons were sacrificed in Viet Nam, for example, regard that war to have been worth the cost to their families. But most of us don’t have the opportunity to make or even influence those decisions. We just live with them. It has been so throughout the history of mankind.

In spite of this sad fact, Almighty God has blessed the United States of America with a strongly patriotic citizenry that rises to the occasion each time the call goes out. We have a standing Armed Force that is second to none, owing in some measure to our leadership in technology, and our incredible economic wealth. But all of those other elements would be like toys in the hands of children without the veritable ocean of motivated, determined, and patriotic men and women who come forward, prepared to lay down their lives if necessary for the sake of their country. When America comes under attack, as in September of 2001, we coalesce as a nation around our Armed Forces and with unmatched effectiveness, project the required level of American force anywhere in the world. As time passes, the American public tends to become weary of armed conflict and – to our great shame – that has sometimes resulted in waning support for our troops. Now ten years into our War on Terror focused largely in the Middle East, we are in the midst of that condition.

I was embedded with our troops in Iraq during 2006- 2007, and have been embedded with them again in Afghanistan since July of last year. I see the challenges, feel some of the pain, experience the sorrow, and observe some of the many benefits of US Armed Forces’ work in this region.  I can state with great authority that the United States does tremendous good in this place. We dig wells, build bridges, provide electricity, provide emergency medical assistance, and support the building of everything from farm production to roads and cargo transport facilities. We replant burned-out orchards, distribute seeds and fertilizer, and restart idled businesses. Although these activities are often foreign to many of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, they step up to those challenges over here every day, day after day, 24/7. I recall one trip in August 2007 in Baqubah, on the border between Iraq and Iran, when we worked our way through 5 factories in temperatures of 138 degrees, having to consume water at an incredible rate, and sweating so heavily that we never even had to relieve ourselves. It was bad enough for me, but for the US Army soldiers surrounding me an protecting me, it was unbelievable. In that heat, inside a factory with no air movement, these men were working in flack jackets, helmets, and carrying M-16s or M-4s as well as 9mm side arms and 9 full magazines of ammunition for each. The heat inside that equipment was unbearable, but they bore it anyway, and I never heard a word of complaint. They understood that we were trying to get people back to work, in order to reduce violence, and bring more of their comrades home to America in one piece. From Basra to Ramadi to Baghdad to Baqubah to Erbil, this went on and on and on. Our troops are relentless in their pursuit of the enemy on the battlefield, but equally committed to restoring order and decent living conditions to the civilian populations they encounter. Now it’s happening again in places like Marjeh, Naw Zad, Gereshk, and Kandahar. These men and women are real heroes, and for the most part you never hear about them in the mainstream press. What a shame.

So as I consider what Memorial Day means this year, surrounded by United States Marines in a theatre of conflict, my prayer is not only a prayer of thanks in remembrance of the sacrifice made by so many Americans over the last 400 years; It is also a prayer for those at home.  I’m praying that American citizens will come to recognize and exhibit heightened levels of respect and gratitude. I believe that Abraham Lincoln may have said it best in his Gettysburg Address: “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” I stand before you, a personal witness; Truer words were never spoken.

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