Remembering those who served before us

Lt. Col Erik Daiga
415th Base Support Battalion commander

***image1***Last Memorial Day weekend, I had the good fortune of being on temporary duty in Washington, D.C., and in attendance at the dedication of the National World War II Memorial. The memorial was built to honor the 16 million veterans who served during World War II and the 400,000 who died fighting for our country. 

Even a greater honor than attending the ceremony was talking with the veterans who fought on the European and Pacific battlefields engraved on the monument. One common theme I heard on that weekend among the veterans I spoke to was “It’s a nice monument, but why did it take America 60 years to build it? Most of us who fought on those battlefields have already passed and will never get see it.”

I never figured out that weekend how to properly respond. I thought about all the bureaucratic reasons why our nation hadn’t honored sooner the heroes who gave their lives saving the world from fascism and tyranny. I thought maybe over the course of 60 years our country might have forgotten their bravery and sacrifice. Washington, D.C., was crowded with dignitaries and visitors to honor our veterans that Memorial Day weekend, but what about the rest of the country? Maybe Americans were just too busy shopping at the mall looking for Memorial Day sales to remember our veterans’ sacrifices, after all World War II ended a long time ago.

In 1884, a student in Boston asked Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous Civil War officer and Supreme Court justice, a similar question – why did America still set aside a day every year to recognize fallen Civil War veterans, after all the war between the states had ended almost 20 years ago. 

Judge Holmes replied, “Memorial Day celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly.”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to come up with such an eloquent response when talking to the World War II veterans. The best I could come up with was that those of us who wear the uniform today do strongly value and respect the sacrifices of those who served before us, on Memorial Day and on every other day.  

Being stationed in Europe, we don’t have to go far to pay our respects on Memorial Day.  We can visit U.S. military cemeteries in Cambridge, England, or Henri Chapelle and Neuville-en-Condroz in Belgium or St. Laurent overlooking the beaches of Normandy in France. Right here in the KMC, we can talk to our Soldiers and Airmen who just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and share our respects for their fallen comrades. We can instill in our children the importance of Memorial Day and why it’s more than just a day off from school. 

Future generations of veterans wouldn’t have to worry about their fallen brothers and sisters being forgotten if every American understood the meaning of Memorial Day as well as Anna, a third-grader from Madison, Conn., who wrote in her elementary school essay: “‘M’ is for the mothers who sent their children off to war; ‘E’ is for the everlasting gift of freedom; ‘M’ is for the mums that decorate Soldiers’ graves; ‘O’ is for the old men that are veterans; ‘I’ is for the island in Hawaii where the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; ‘A’ is for America, the home of the brave; ‘L’ is for the land of the free.”

Anna forgot the letter “R,” so let me fill it in for her. “R” is for the respect we owe every Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine who gave their life in defense of our freedom.