In large cemeteries in our cities and small ones on our hills and in our valleys, they lie. Some rest in churchyards, others in family plots. Some never made it home at all, remaining where they fell in far-off lands.
We will mourn them all on Monday, Memorial Day. We celebrate their lives, give thanks for their patriotism and courage, and wonder what might have been had they not perished in the service of our nation.
Many people from our state have very personal reasons for observing Memorial Day. During wars and smaller conflicts during the 20th century alone, 1,782 men and women from our states laid down their lives. Another 38 have died during recent years, in Iraq, Afghanistan and other battlefields of the war against terrorism.
Before that, no one really knows with certainty how many of our neighbors went off to the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Indian wars and the Spanish-American War. Here and there, worn tombstones remind us of those war dead. We know only that they numbered in the many hundreds, perhaps thousands.
They are gone from us – but never, ever forgotten.
The children remind us. Who is that in the old sepia-toned picture? What was my granddaddy like? Why is Aunt Jane so sad sometimes? Why is that faded old letter, written 155 years ago by someone I never heard of, kept in the box of family treasures?
On Monday, we remember and mourn as a nation.
We revere all those who have served and are serving, of course. We try to understand the debt we owe them – though, in truth, most of us cannot. We were not there, with them.
Memorial Day is special, however. On Monday, we pause to reflect that the price of our freedom, our safety and our way of life was paid not by impersonal numbers in the tallies of war dead, but by men and women to whom life and the loved ones they left behind were precious.
Yet they sacrificed all for us and, yes, for those with whom they served.
They faced terrors few among us can even imagine. We can read about the frozen hell of Korea and the steamy jungles of Vietnam. We can watch old newsreels of flaming aircraft falling from the sky, men falling in charges across beaches, and ships sinking in the lonely oceans. We can listen to those whose buddies were killed by bomb-carrying children.
But we cannot understand.
We can pay homage to those who did not come back alive from the hell that is war. We can be grateful beyond expressing for the supreme gift they gave us.
On Monday, then, we pray that God will keep them, granting our honored dead the peace they were denied in life, even as they perished in order that we back home might have it.
On Memorial Day. It is a time to mourn, a time to give thanks – and a time to remember.