This year I was invited by the City of Trenton to keynote a Memorial Day service at Edgewood Cemetery. I was honored to participate Sunday afternoon in a small, circular copse of trees with about 30 other Todd County citizens. I wanted to share my remarks here, as part of my own way to remember and reflect on the sacrifices of those who have died:
The Civil War, what Lincoln in his second inaugural address called "the great contest," was within days of ending when the President took the oath of office a second time. During what would become perhaps his second most famous speech after Gettysburg, the newly re-installed President said of the war, "Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained."
The Civil War's bloodiest one-day battle, at Antietam (22,726), saw the death of nearly twice as many soliders as Todd County's entire present day population. Though the nation was a short three years removed from that bloody, divisive war, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, established *Decoration Day* for the nation to set aside time to decorate the graves of those lost in the war. Ceremonies like the one we're observing now, slowly became custom across the country. State legislatures passed resolutions and proclamations recognizing the day. Following World War I, the day was expanded to honor the lives lost in all American Wars. Not until 1966 did President Lyndon Johnson recognize the origins of Memorial Day and five years later Congress officially recognized as a Federal holiday the last Monday in May as Memorial Day.
From the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, through present day, America has had more than a million heroes who have given what Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion." We gather here today to offer our time to recognize and reflect on their sacrifice, and truly, the sacrifices being made for us even now in the furthest and darkest regions of the globe.
We have heard it said that "freedom is not free." Those who have served, and the families of those who have served, know just how true that is. Too easily, too often, most of us forget. We get up, make coffee, head to work, do our jobs and head home. Throw in church meetings, and the occassional date night. This weekend, many Americans are hitting the road to do little more than party with loved ones or friends. I fear there will be more BBQ's than memorial services. But these freedoms – our daily routines – came at a price. Over the course of America's history many have tried to take these freedoms away. In fact, many still desire to rob us of these freedoms, of the very peace and peace of mind we enjoy everyday. We didn't fear for our lives when we gathered for church this morning. No one threatens you as you drop your kids off at school. We can fellowship in open daylight. There are places in the world where the same cannot be said, but we are gathered here to remember the ones who died to make certain America isn't one of them.
I have never believed that I was disciplined enough to be a soldier, sailor, airman or marine. I certainly never believed I was physically fit enough. I have looked at the branches of the armed forces with equal parts curiosity and awe. The culture appears, from my limited perspective, wildly different than our day-to-day. For those serving in desert-like conditions (or elsewhere), even if we normalize for scorched earth, our military men & women live in a very different world. Authority, rigorous calls of duty, honor, rigorous mental preparation, loyalty, uniquely challenging training, discipline; these are some of the hallmarks of military service. With all due respect to my fellow legislators, I cannot say the same about the Kentucky General Assembly, or any other unit of government. Those traits, those qualities, are the rule in the military. Outside the military, they are the exception. Those men and women were once like us, but for various reasons each one volunteered to step out of the comfortable path and onto a path marked with sacrifice, struggle, blood and death. No, perhaps these men and women were never like us to begin with. What they choose to do is special, and, to those of us with a mere fraction of their courage, difficult to grasp.
On Veteran's Day last fall I attended a joint lunch between Hopkinsville's Kiwanis and Rotary clubs. Our guest speaker was Col. David "Buck" Dellinger, Garrison Commander of Ft. Campbell. Col. Dellinger gave a resounding call for support for the U.S. Army and her companion branches of service. This call for support is important to everyone in Todd County and the surrounding counties and communities of Western Kentucky, and sister communities in Tennessee. We feel a sense of responsibility to the service members and their families. Our communities give time, money and muscle to the men and women of the service and their families. We cook meals and celebrate returns home. We comfort and lift up in prayer the loved ones that return permanently changed, and the loved ones of those that never return at all. This is the least we can do.
Col. Dellinger said something during the meeting that struck a chord with me. He made reference to the line we hear on the airwaves from time to time, "boots on the ground." The Colonel said he was one of the first 500 soldiers on the ground in Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. He referenced distant support from aircraft and surface fleets in the Gulf, but that it was the troops on the ground that made the greatest impact. He said, "Those soldiers drew a line in the sand and dared the enemy to cross." My Veterans Day came to a grinding halt with this imagery. Air and sea superiority are certainly mission critical, but seeing in my mind these men and women standing at the front - quite literally the front line - staring the enemy head on and daring them to cross it. These men and women are heroes. Superheroes. We should be thankful for those courageous women and men who choose to leave the comfortable path for the front line. They do that for us. Every. Single. Day.
Just as I began with his words, I'll close with a fitting part of Lincoln's most famous speech, delivered on the morning of November 19, 1863 to a crowd of about 15,000. Lincoln hadn't been the featured speaker that day in Gettysburg. However, even the featured speaker, Edward Everett, realized his two-hour speech been upstaged by the poignant, powerful and surprisingly short 272-word speech delivered by the President. Lincoln's remarks are just as appropriate and instructive for us today as they were for the nation still embroiled in war in 1863:
As we gather here, and just as importantly, as we part ways, let us be "highly resolved" to remember and honor the sacrifice of America's heroes.