This is a guest post by CFR military fellow, Colonel Chad T. Manske, U.S. Air Force.
This weekend is a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices of our veterans, particular those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the freedoms we hold so dear.
The first official observance of Memorial Day occurred in 1868, on the order of General John Alexander Logan, the leader of a veterans’ group called the Grand Army of the Republic. Logan designated May 30 as a day for “strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” On May 30 of that year, war orphans and veterans placed flowers on the graves of the more than 20,000 Civil War dead in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation that declared Waterloo, New York, the birthplace of Memorial Day. The U.S. Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971, and changed the date of observance from May 30 to the last Monday in May to give workers a three-day weekend.
To many people, Memorial Day is a time of festive celebration, outdoor Bar-B-Qs, and marks the unofficial beginning of summer. To others, Memorial Day is a time of reflection and remembrance of men and women who forged a nation under the ideals of liberty and equality.
Likewise, to me, a 22-year active duty Air Force officer, I will forever be reminded of Memorial Day by where I spent this weekend a year ago. While the Commander of the 100th Air Refueling Wing and installation at RAF Mildenhall, England, I traveled to Normandy, France. I was not there specifically to pay tribute to those Americans who lost their lives on D-Day. Rather, I went to run my first marathon at Mont St Michel. Yet upon arriving a couple days before the race I took full advantage of the opportunity to pay tribute to America’s fallen heroes who perished on the beaches of Normandy, to walk in their footsteps and to pay respects to those laid to rest at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Of the 57,500 Americans who landed upon Omaha and Utah Beaches, 4,050 became casualties.
Normandy stirs the memory of the greatest generation today through ceremonies, television documentaries and movies. One of the most famous of those movies in our time was Saving Private Ryan. The movie storyline is based on the lives of the four Niland brothers, of which two—Preston and Robert—died at Normandy within a day of each other and are buried in the cemetery. To walk the beaches as I did a year ago is to feel the pangs of loss for this family and of so many others.
The Normandy invasion itself produced untold bravery on the part of a dozen courageous Americans who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. A handful of those dozen–of the 9,387 buried at the Normandy Cemetery–stand out. Among them is Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of our long-ago president and one of the highest ranking officers to ever receive this award. The information on the normally plain white gravestone cross at Normandy is specially outlined in gold with a gold star adorning the top of the cross. And his story, like those of his caliber, is a remarkable one filled with unreal bravery and courage.
Outside the cemetery and near the beachheads, one is taken back 68 years where the evidence of German fortifications and pillboxes remain for today’s generations to see. Near one of those fortifications is the site of one of the fiercest struggles ever by American soldiers at Pointe du Hoc. It is the site where three Army Ranger Groups—about 225 infantrymen–scaled a 100-foot high rock face assigned to take out German guns atop these strategic cliffs. At the end of the mission, 135 of those Rangers would lose their lives, yet five German field guns would be destroyed and silenced, and a strategic location would be secured in the process.
Yes, for me, Memorial Day will forever hold special meaning.
Thousands of young men and women have given their lives in the cause for freedom, and we add their names, with great sorrow, to the stacks of ledgers that record the names of every lost Airman, Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Coast Guardsman, civil servant, and Department of Defense contractor. These courageous individuals stood toe to toe with our adversaries, offering themselves as shields for America to keep war from reaching our front door. Each of them knew what their duty was, but surely, each of them also dreamed of coming home to the people they loved and the lives they cherished. Every loss is a loss to our nation, a loss to our military, and, most importantly, a loss to the families who grieve. As we gather to honor the memories of the fallen, a piece of us struggles to understand the meaning of such sacrifice and loss. We are forever in their debt for putting themselves in harm’s way, so that we may live in peace.
On this Memorial Day, at 3 p.m., wherever you are, please be sure to pause and participate in the National Moment of Remembrance established by Congress. This is a moment of reflection and an opportunity to demonstrate your gratitude for those who died for us. Let us continue to make sure these heroes are never forgotten–on this day and every day as we honor those who have given “their last full measure of devotion” in service to our Nation, let us renew our commitment to military family survivors, as well as to our wounded warriors and their families.
To all of our Armed Forces, whether serving at home or abroad, please know your sacrifices do not go unnoticed. We are grateful for your service and are privileged to stand with you, by you, and for you. Thank you and God Bless America!