Do you remember where you where? Do you remember where you were when Pearl Harbor was bombed? When President Kennedy was assassinated? When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon? Where you were on Sept. 11, 2001? Where you were when the Buffalo Bills drafted Josh Allen?
We all remember. We remember where we were and what we were doing at the significant moments in our life: the Christmases with loved ones, the birthdays, the deaths of loved ones. We remember people.
It’s been estimated that 1.35 million Americans have lost their lives in our country’s conflicts. The have died for our independence. To preserve our Union and end the scourge of chattel slavery. The defeat fascism and end the Holocaust. To fight communism and terrorism and to free peoples around the globe. Through the selfless sacrifice of our fallen, the United States of America is the greatest force for good the world has ever known.
What price would we pay? We ask the question of ourselves internally with decisions we make every day. How much is that worth and how much will I pay? Would we give our lives?
A little over a decade ago, Marine Gen. John Kelly came to Cheyenne to belatedly present the Presidential Unit Citation to the 2/300 Field Artillery Unit of the Wyoming Army National Guard for its exemplary service in the Korean War.
In his comments to those veterans and surviving spouses, he recounted a story of two young Marines serving in Ramadi, Iraq, in the War on Terrorism. He told of how the two Marines on guard duty at a post faced down an oncoming suicide truck bomber driving at high speed toward the gates of a base where hundreds of their brother Marines were stationed, sleeping.
Rather than turning and fleeing, the two young Marines – not much older than my son here today – did not even flinch. The raised their rifles, leaned into the face of chaos and death, and as the last clips of the security video show, gave what President Lincoln called that Last Full Measure of Devotion. Like so many others before and after them, they saved their fellows and gave their lives for you and me.
Gen. Kelly’s own son fell in Afghanistan a few days after that address in Cheyenne.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that, “Greater love hath no one than this: that they lay down their life for a friend.” What price would we pay?
We are Americans and we remember. And that is what Memorial Day is all about. We remember and we memorialize those who gave their lives for something greater than themselves. For those principles enshrined in our founding documents: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For the self-evident principle that all men are created equal. For their countrymen.
My great grandfather was Frank MacKenzie. He lived in Sheridan. As a little boy, I remember him teaching us to milk a cow and shooting the stream into his barn cat’s mouth. He was a veteran of the Great War. That war was particularly horrific, and he was fortunate to make it home. Grandad MacKenzie was at the first battle of the Somme. He was gassed and carried shrapnel from that fight for the rest of his life. Over 53,000 Americans died.
In his immortal work of World War I, “In Flanders Fields,” the poet John McCrae wrote, “To you from failing hands we throw, the torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”
If ye break faith. As Americans, we are obliged to remember. The torch is ours to hold high, to be worthy of their sacrifice and ensure their death were not in vain. And as Wyomingites, we will remember. In Cheyenne, in the shadow of the Wyoming State Capitol, is the Wyoming Fallen Warriors Memorial. It is our state’s eternal commitment to the memory of those Wyoming soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coast guardsmen who gave their lives for their country. We will remember.
The Memorial Day holiday has become a long weekend – a day off from school, a time to have a cookout and a beer with family and friends and an opportunity to get a good deal on a new car or bedroom set. All of this is fine – it is American. But we need to remember why and we need to remember always those who have fallen so that we can do these things.
This Memorial Day, I would challenge you with this: Fly your flag at home and wear your poppy on this and every Memorial Day. Tell your children and grandchildren about those who died for us. Revisit the urge to thank a veteran, serviceman, policeman or first responder. This is not their day. The ones we truly thank today are not here. They are gone. And most of all, remember.
Travis Deti is the chairman of the Wyoming Veterans Commission and a former sergeant in the United States Marine Corps