America is a nation at war.
Next year will mark 20 years since the September 11 attacks against the United States and the beginning of the military operations that followed, and -- still -- Americans are fighting and dying in some of the most dangerous places in the world.
A lot has changed during that almost 20 years. We’ve chosen new leaders, found new heroes, and overcome new challenges in this country and abroad.
What we’ve lost has often been measured by the number of fresh white markers in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery -- the final resting place of many who’ve died in military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
It can be measured more fully by markers and memorials in cities and towns all over America, including those that signify losses sustained in preparation for war and a result of the war’s mental and physical impacts.
For those of us who have had the privilege of serving alongside the brave few who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to this country, Memorial Day has special significance.
It isn’t a “holiday” in the traditional sense. It’s a day of honor and remembrance for our brothers and sisters who’ve gone before us.
What does it mean to live a life that’s worth it? Most of us recognize that we owe a debt to those who gave their lives willingly in service to us, but how can we begin to repay that debt?
Meanwhile, as the unofficial kick-off of summer, Memorial Day has become synonymous in broader American culture with beach trips and sandcastles, backyard barbeques, and blowout summer sales on everything from kitchen appliances to patio furniture.
A quick Google search, for instance, will yield dozens of results for “the best Memorial Day deals” and “where you should be shopping this Memorial Day.”
Still, America is a nation at war.
When we forget that we are at war, we dismiss war’s costs. We forget that servicemen and women are still fighting and dying for the freedoms we enjoy. We forget that we are in debt for their sacrifice.
That doesn’t mean -- of course -- that we should embrace guilt or live in perpetual sadness.
As General George S. Patton said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”
For many of us, Memorial Day is about filling the impossible void left by those men and women. We resolve to live lives of purpose, to be the best versions of ourselves -- to be the best sons or daughters, fathers or mothers, brothers or sisters, friends, citizens, and human beings that we can be.
As my friend former Green Beret Tim Kennedy said, we strive to live lives that are “worth it.” What does it mean to live a life that’s worth it? Most of us recognize that we owe a debt to those who gave their lives willingly in service to us, but how can we begin to repay that debt?
It starts with gratitude.
Memorial Day didn’t become an official holiday until 1971, but the tradition of setting aside a time to honor the fallen began in the years after the Civil War when communities across the still-healing United States spent a day decorating headstones with flowers and flags.
It is a mark of resilience and fortitude that even in this nation’s worst moments, after its bloodiest conflicts, we have been grateful.
That gratitude is the source of our strength -- our commitment to exercise our own freedoms responsibly, to serve others, and to pass those values on to our children and their children.
In the fallen, we have an example of absolute selflessness -- of what it means to put others first in no uncertain terms. They set the standard for what it means to live with purpose. For some of us, following that example means earning and wearing a service uniform.
For others, it means something else entirely. Every day and in every moment, we are at a decision point.
We have to decide whether we will live for ourselves or live for others. What we decide depends on how we have understood the sacrifices of those who’ve gone before us.
For the friends and families of the fallen, there is not a day that passes that we don’t remember. They’re still with us.
Their character, their laughter, their hopes and aspirations -- it stays with us and drives us onward. We choose to live for them.
As a people and as a nation, we cannot afford to let their light dim. We cannot afford to get so sunken into the everydayness of life that we forget -- on Memorial Day and every day -- to say their names, tell their stories, place flags at their graves, have a beer with them, remember who they were and tell our children.
Their legacy is a world that’s better because they lived. It is up to us to keep that legacy alive.