Delivered by Joseph Raisner, Camp Hill High School Senior 2004
Every spring we celebrate this holiday called “Memorial Day,” which traditionally marks the beginning of summer. Although the true celestial observance of the changing seasons does not officially occur for another three weeks, today is recognized as the day when all the summer events may officially commence. It is a day when families can congregate for a picnic or a barbeque; it is a day when used car dealers are expected to mark down all their prices; and it is a day when, weather permitting, small communities can provide its citizens with a parade to entertain both children and adults alike. However, not all Americans today are celebrating this holiday with such spirited enthusiasm. Some families may not be holding that annual barbeque in the back yard. Some children may not be holding their fathers’ hand as the band marches past. And some mothers may still be staring at the flag, which flies at half-staff. It is to these individuals whom I speak today, empathizing with your grief that a loved one may not be here to celebrate in these festivities. So today let us take a moment out of the celebrations to reflect on the true meaning of Memorial Day, and the sacrifices that our military personnel make for each and every one of us.
It has been said that one must die so that others may know the full value of life. We are all given only one life to live. It may end in an instant—an instant unfamiliar to one and all. Yet it is because of this certainty of death that we place such a high regard on human life. Were we all able to live forever and experience no losses, we would never be able to fully appreciate the moments in life that make us truly happy. But just as happiness isn’t free, the freedom to live life to its fullest has its costs as well. That’s what the members of our Armed Forces do for us: they pick up the check so that the rest of us may enjoy the land in which we live. They fight for our freedom, for the freedom of their fellow human beings, and for the freedom granted to us by the founders of our nation. Every minute of every day, there is a soldier somewhere far from home, giving all he has to give for a much higher cause. Likewise, there is always a veteran somewhere, with his fingertips on a war memorial, thanking a fallen soldier for saving his life years before. These brave soldiers, sailors, fliers and marines died protecting their country and what it stands for. They died defending a way of life that they felt was worth dying for … for families, children, freedom, morality, values, and responsibility.
Although Memorial Day may be a federal holiday, and some of us have the luxury of a day off from work or school, our soldiers do not enjoy such a privilege. War is a 24/7 commitment that knows no holidays. War does not allow for second chances or second thoughts. And unfortunately, war brings the inescapable reality of death far too close to home. So why would someone even want to join the military in the first place? Why put yourself into that position, knowing you are only placing your life on the line?
Well this commitment comes down to two things: honor and duty.
When a soldier goes into battle, he is immediately stripped of any prejudices that befell him at home. He is no longer described according to his ethnic background, religious beliefs, or political affiliation. Instead, he is left with the title of an “American Soldier.” I cannot think of any more honorable distinction than this. Were I a doctor, a fireman, or an astronaut, all these childhood dreams would fall far short of the honor that a soldier in uniform carries. I know that every time I see one of our decorated men and women in public, I immediately hold them in the highest esteem. Although you may see a soldier at a common restaurant eating dinner, or walking to an appointment in the city, it is undeniable that you must feel a sense of admiration for this person. As he or she walks past, children stare in awe and veterans salute. This respect is earned through the meaning that the uniform carries. It isn’t simply for show, to decorate with pretty ribbons and sashes. Instead, it is to show that person’s dedication and willingness to serve. They serve each and every one of us by defending the nation in which we live today. Before adorning this uniform, they must swear an oath to protect the Constitution, the land, and the peoples of America from any and all enemies. To uphold this oath, they protect us with guns; they protect us with tanks; but most of all, they protect us with their lives.
Just recently, ABCNews aired a special program titled “The Fallen,” which paid an exclusive tribute to all of the U.S. servicemen and women who have been killed while serving in Iraq. Their names were read aloud, and their pictures were displayed for the entire American public to witness. This program had no melodramatic flair, no background music, nor any traditional plotline to follow. Instead, it was merely a reading of the names of the heroes who died for our country. I must admit that personally I found myself totally enthralled by this program, despite the fact that I didn’t know any of the soldiers being mentioned. I actually sat there and listened as each and every person’s name was read, and felt a sense of admiration for these men and women whose commitment and courage were being showcased. They felt a sense of duty, and they dedicated their lives to fulfill that duty.
How many of us actually feel that sense of duty so fervently that we too are willing to give the last full measure to defend our nation? How many of us can honestly say we’d choose the path of most resistance in order to contribute? We can all sit back and hang a flag in our windows or flaunt a bumper sticker that says, “Support the Troops,” but how many of us will actually dedicate our lives? Four years from now I will raise my right hand and swear an oath to become an officer in the United States Air Force. I seek to humbly join the ranks with the provided assurance that I will contribute a significant service to my country and seal the bond among soldiers that survives even death. Knowing that my life means something—that I will have contributed to a cause greater than any other I can think of—allows me the satisfaction of knowing the true worth of my existence.
Historically, our nation has achieved many successes in battle, both domestic and abroad, fighting to protect humanity from oppression, tyranny, and to uphold a common freedom. However, these victories did not come without their casualties. We join here today to recognize the valiant efforts of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who put country before self and made their marks in history. Especially this year, we find ourselves dedicating a remembrance to the veterans of the past, as well as to the veterans of the present. In our nation’s capital, we have opened a new National Monument to the heroes of World War II; however, we are constantly reminded of the death toll in Iraq that has not gotten any smaller. As Senator Dole said just this weekend, we do not pay a tribute to war, rather, a tribute “to the physical and moral courage that makes heroes out of farm and city boys, that inspires Americans of every generation to lay down their lives for people they’ll never meet.” On this Memorial Day, to feel the full effects of the sacrifices our soldiers have made for us, I ask all of you to take just one moment to silently gaze upon the graves in our cemetery. Each one of those small American Flags represents not only that person’s service to the military, but also their service to each and every one of us. They gave all they had to give, and we owe our freedom, our happiness, and our lives in gratitude.