On Memorial Day, our 18 million veterans will remember with pain somewhat dulled by the passage of time their friends who perished in the service of America. We will still grieve for their family’s loss. Mother’s never heal, they just finally accept. Volunteers and draftees. Of color and white. Mostly young. Many of them teenagers. In obedience to our laws, they served and died. More than 1 million of our military dead who will remain frozen in time and forever young.

Memorial Day is different this year in the time of COVID-19. With 92,000 U.S. dead in a few short weeks and the invisible contagion waiting silently to take more of us, it’s difficult for most Americans to do anything but focus on survival in the coming months and acknowledge our deep gratitude for the men and women who day and night have stepped forward to care for us and protect us from this terrible virus.

It is very important to pause and remember those who throughout our nearly 250 years of history were willing to stand between us and those who would menace or enslave us. These brave young Americans did not choose their death, but they did choose their courage and willingness to give up their precious lives to defend their buddies and their principles.

A military funeral for a fallen soldier is a beautiful ceremony but also a jarring and sad affair. There is enormous grief from the family. The mother who gave him birth. The high school teammates. Some terribly wounded battle comrades recovering in a military hospital. The 24 notes of the beautiful bugle farewell “Taps” follow the three sharp cracks of the rifle salute. The volley kicks off enormous waves of tears. It is the final farewell to mark a soldier’s ultimate gift … their life.

Gen. Barry McCaffrey served as Commander, 24th Mechanical Infantry Division, in the Desert Storm battle in the Euphrates River Valley, Iraq, January 1991. (Courtesy Gen. Barry McCaffrey)
Gen. Barry McCaffrey served as Commander, 24th Mechanical Infantry Division, in the Desert Storm battle in the Euphrates River Valley, Iraq, January 1991. (Courtesy Gen. Barry McCaffrey)

Millions of us have been there on the battlefield. We saw the aircraft get hit. We were on the bridge when last contact with the submarine was made. We saw the tank after it exploded in flames. I lost two of my captain commanders two weeks apart in Vietnam. Wonderful officers in their late 20s, older men in the eyes of an infantry lieutenant. The first killed as we extracted under fire was hit in the small of the back by the only rounds to strike the Chinook helicopter. The second killed during an all-night barrage of enemy artillery on our battalion. I crawled over to him and retrieved his .357 Magnum revolver since I was wounded and could not load my M16. His mother wrote me several beautiful letters in later weeks. In the last communication she asked if I had “prayed with her son as death approached.” I could not recreate for her the scene. The whiplash of machine gun fire across the landing zone. The pouring rain and the mud, and the hundreds of casualties hoping to survive. The ongoing combat mayhem that is incompatible with prayer.

Our troops are out there today in harm’s way across the face of the Earth. Sixty thousand have been killed or wounded since the 9/11 attacks to protect us from the terrorists who wish to destroy us and our freedom. In this war, 1,000 of our casualties have been women. They now join their brothers in shedding their blood.

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So, on this Memorial Day, as we face such sadness for our threatened way of life, let us also honor the memories of those courageous young Americans who disappeared into history so that we could remain free and live under our Constitution.

I am reminded of a passage in the famous 1914 poem by Laurence Binyon:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

 At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.