Today is a special day. It is a day of honor and reverence; it is a solemn day. Today we must recognize an unfortunate fact of life: our beloved country was formed and is protected by the blood of warriors. As unfortunate as this is we can be thankful, because over the years America has answered the call every time our way of life has been threatened. No one has more succinctly and accurately described what someone puts on the line when they sign a contract to serve in the armed forces than legendary General Jim Mattis of the United States Marine Corps. In a recent address to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Mattis articulated, “You signed blank checks payable with your lives to the American people.” With a simple analogy he captures the moment of signing, when a civilian Department of Defense employee hands a young man or woman a black pen, in a cubicle somewhere inside a military entrance processing station. You take the pen, and you think nothing of it, because your mind is already made up. Unbeknownst to many, their fate is sealed with the final stroke of that black pen.

There are many veterans among us today, including myself, but today is not our day. Today is the day that has been made for the ones who left home, but did not return. We gather in order to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us, and to pay them homage. Memorial Day was first observed on May 30th, 1868, after being proclaimed by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. Logan’s stated purpose for observing the holiday was to, “gather around the sacred remains” of our “comrades who died in defense of our country”, “garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring time, and raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor.” Logan suggested a respectful and gracious disposition for the day, affirming we ought to, “cherish tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes.”

How do we measure the sacrifices spoken of by General Logan? We could start by counting the number of deaths in service to this country – somewhere around 1.1 million. We could count the number of fathers, brothers, husbands, mothers, sisters, or wives that never came home from a war zone. If we envision a military funeral, we can count the number of times an American flag is folded before it is handed to a new widow. We could count the number of shots fired after she receives the flag, or the number of notes in taps. Maybe we can count the number of nights she goes without sleep, the number of times she asks God, “Why?”, or the number of tears she cries. We could count the number of little league games a boy’s father will not be there for, or the number of walks a mother will not be able to go on with her daughter. If we were able to add all of these things up, perhaps it would give us some idea of the sacrifices that have been made for our freedoms. However, in reality such things are not quantifiable. We cannot count the grief in a mother’s heart when she finds out her son or daughter is not returning home from a foreign battlefield. We cannot count the thoughts that go through a soldier’s head as he gasps for his last few breaths of air while his buddies try in vain to save his life. Truly, the sacrifices made by this nation’s heroes and their families are immeasurable.

These are the grim realities of our freedom. Freedom ranks among the greatest of gifts known to man, but like anything of value, it has its price. Those who have lost a loved one in service to our country are all too familiar with the price that must be paid. They know what it is like to have their worst nightmare come true when they see a government vehicle park in front of their house. When the doorbell rings they already know what the two uniformed officers waiting outside are going to say. Those who have not experienced such things will never understand freedom in the way those who have do, because no one can feel the pain they have lived through. Most Americans, then, having never laid such a sacrifice upon freedom’s altar, hold a very narrow view of what freedom really is. Though our understanding of the freedom with which we are provided may be limited, let our gratitude to those who have given their lives to provide it, and our compassion for their loved ones, be unending.

This begs the question, how do we show our gratitude to our men and women in uniform who have given their lives for us? As they are no longer physically with us, surely we cannot verbally thank them, except through prayer. It is impossible to know the intentions behind each person’s service, and some who gave their lives for this country did not even volunteer to do so; they were drafted. In what way, then, can we thank them? There is a way to give gratitude to each man and woman who has died for this country, regardless of the reason for their service, or whether they were drafted, or volunteered themselves. Making this country something worth dying for is the ultimate service we can do for them. We each can do this in our own unique way according to our abilities, and when we do it redeems their sacrifices. As long as we bear this in mind and act upon it we are honoring our fallen heroes, but if we as a society do not show gratitude for their sacrifices, their memory fades. They gave the last full measure for us; their blank checks were cashed. Let us not commit the injustice of taking their sacrifices for granted. None of our fallen warfighters wanted to die for us. But if these things must happen, let them happen in the name of something befitting of such a noble and heroic act.

I consider it appropriate, on this day of remembrance, to address a social trend which has been around for decades, yet has occurred with greater frequency as a symptom of the recent social unrest in our country. Just over a week ago, a friend of mine with whom I served posted a picture on Facebook of a woman standing on an American flag which had been placed on the ground approximately ten feet away from a group of soldiers. In the picture the woman was smiling, and had her right hand held up next to her shoulder in a fist. This act of protest and others like it are protected speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In mentioning this, let me be clear that it is not my intent to stir emotions or comment on the law’s correctness or lack thereof. Whether or not desecration of the flag should be protected by law is an ongoing debate in our society. Be that as it may, I would be remiss on this day of remembrance if I did not point out the fact that the woman in the picture and others like her can stand on the American flag, they can walk on it, they can spit on it, they can throw it on the ground, kick it around, and burn it, but nothing they do will ever detract from the honor and courage with which our heroic dead have served, nor could it ever diminish the dearness of their sacrifices; this is not debatable. Their honor can never be taken from them because, although they had to leave behind wives, husbands, children, and a lifetime of memories they never got to make, the honor they earned by the sacrifice of their blood abides with them eternally. They remain with us in spirit to the extent we dignify their offering.

Truly, no American has loved us more than the service member who has offered their last breath to secure that which we cherish. Everywhere we go they are with us. When you take your children to the park, when you have a birthday party for them, when they are opening their Christmas presents, please remember, there are heroes watching over them. When you go to a football game on Friday night, when you sit around a campfire with friends, or when you go for a walk with someone you love, give thanks to the warriors standing guard. You will not see them, as their hour has already passed. Yet, they abide in the recesses of our worldly perception. Underneath everything we hold dear is the blood of those to whom we owe our deepest respect and fidelity. If you stop and listen closely, not with your ears, but with your heart, you can hear the whisper of the army of the dead. As they leave behind a life on earth worthy of honor, remembrance, and gratitude, they unceasingly utter “I love you to death.”

Happy Memorial Day; God bless America.