By Kevin Shannahan
“… the haunting tightrope so many American families walk every day: We teach our children
that there is honor in serving our country, yet we live in dread of the price they may be called
upon to pay….”
– Senator, Secretary of the Navy, Vietnam Veteran and father of a U.S. Marine, James
Webb, in “The Price of Duty”
“Thy will be done”
– The inscription on the tombstone of RAF Leading Aircraftman Raymond A. Berry, killed February 7 th , 1942 in a training accident at the age of 19. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Terrell, Texas.
Memorial Day occupies an ambivalent place in the national consciousness, and that is not an entirely bad thing. There was no need to remind people that Memorial Day was more than the start of the summer season in 1918 or 1945. I would not wish a return to the scale of those wars that saw virtually every family in the country with friends and relatives in harm’s way. The price is simply too high to pay.
I do not begrudge my fellow citizens a day at the beach or a cookout. I am not offended by Memorial Day sales. I plan on spending some time at the grill myself today. I have a higher opinion of my fellow Americans than to think that indifference or a shallow callousness underlies the ambivalence surrounding Memorial Day.
Quite simply, the majority of our fellow Americans have no personal connection to their country’s military. There has not been a draft in decades. Fewer and fewer Americans have served in uniform. Fewer and fewer families have a son or daughter serving. A smaller and smaller percentage of the population performs the hard, dangerous, and necessary work that makes diplomacy possible. The military deals with complex operations, weapons and situations that are inherently dangerous by design. Even in peacetime, there is a toll.
President Biden will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as his predecessors have done since after WWI. Aside from that, there are few, if any, national observances. Memorial Day may be a national holiday, but its observances are local. That is as it should be. At cookouts and gatherings of friends and family across America those present will at some point raise a glass or otherwise remember a loved one who did not make it home. In cemeteries across the nation,families and friends will pause by a gravestone and remember. In these small remembrances, some formal, most not, lies the meaning of Memorial Day.
The title of this article is taken from a verse of “I Vow to Thee my Country” an English hymn put to music after the First World War. It commemorates the dead of WWI and is commonly sung at Remembrance Day services and state funerals. I thought of the hymn when I read the inscription on Leading Aircraftman Berry’s grave. His parents’ choice of that epitaph for their son made me think of the verse, here in full:
“… The love that stands the testThat lays upon the altarThe dearest and the best…”“Thy will be done” brought tears to my eyes when I read it.
The members of the United States’ Armed Forces are our sons and daughters, each and every one of them. They represent the best this nation has to offer. It is incumbent upon those of us Veterans who have been blessed with the opportunity to become old men and women to join all of our fellow citizens in what President Lincoln referred to as “the unfinished work” in the Gettysburg Address. We owe a debt. Be a good citizen. Be a good husband, wife, father and mother. Be better men and women. Build a better America one family and one community at a time. Be worthy of the men and women who cannot be with us. Make their sacrifice count!
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