For most of my life, I was like most people: I knew what Memorial Day stood for, but I didn't really stop to think about what it truly meant. That changed after I went to Iraq in 2004 as a civil-affairs soldier with the Army Reserves. When you serve with people who don't come home, Memorial Day means something different.
Memorial Day is not about politics. Whatever your feelings about current or former wars, remember this: All military personnel take an oath. The fallen swore and gave their lives honoring a promise:
"I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the uniform code of military justice. So help me God."
The soldiers who gave Uncle Sam a blank check with their lives offered to answer our nation's call to arms. The military does not decide to go to war; it just answers the call of our nation. And the numbers of those who have died answering that call continue to rise: 4,454 and counting in Iraq; 1,586 and counting in Afghanistan; 58,220 in Vietnam; 36,574 in Korea; 405,399 in World War II. Since 1775, in fact, more than 1.3 million military personnel (and counting) have given their lives for this nation.
It's a huge number, but, then, Memorial Day is not about the numbers. It's about the individual human being: the American, the man, the woman, the father, the brother, the spouse, the friend, the son, the uncle and the daughter who answered the call of our nation to deploy into violence, into war.
It's about people such as Upper Darby High School graduate Lt. Col. Mark Patrick Phelan, 47, from Pennsylvania, a father, uncle, husband and brother who went to Iraq with the 416th Civil Affairs Battalion (Norristown) to win the "hearts and minds" of Iraqis. His remains now lie in Arlington National Cemetery, with fellow heroes, such as Cpl. Michael Crescenz, of Philadelphia, a Vietnam veteran who received the Medal of Honor. Lt. Col. Phelan was an Army reservist killed by a "homicide bomber" who rammed his explosives-filled car into the Humvee in which Phelan was riding.
Memorial Day is about Americans like infantry paratrooper Robert Dembowski Jr., 20, a graduate of Pennsylvania's Council Rock High, who was killed in Baghdad in a small-arms attack. It's about Roger Haller, 49, a Maryland National Guard command sergeant-major, whose helicopter was shot down in Iraq and who now rests in Arlington. It's about Nicole Frye, 19, a Civil Affairs soldier from Wisconsin, who was killed in Iraq by an IED as she drove an unarmored Humvee that had a plastic tarp for a door.
Memorial Day is for Bradli Coleman, 19, of Ford City, Pa., who was killed by a mortar as he slept on his bunk in Mosul, Iraq, after working the night shift in Task Force Olympia headquarters. Memorial Day is about Marine Maj. John Spahr, 42, a former Philadelphia All-Catholic quarterback at Saint Joseph's Prep, whose F18 went down in Iraq. Memorial Day is about Marine John Basilone, killed in the Pacific during World War II. Memorial Day is to remember the sacrifice of Lee Hartel, killed in Korea. It is about Patrick Ward, 21, a helicopter machine-gunner from Fairmount who did not return from Vietnam.
Every day is Memorial Day for the fallen's families, friends and comrades-in-arms. Look into the eyes of Robert Dembowski Sr., or those of a Gold Star Mother, and you will see the immeasurable price that some pay for our freedoms.
Memorial Day is about the infinite void that each deceased hero leaves. It's about the families and friends of Phelan, Crescenz, Dembowski, Frye, Spahr, Haller, Coleman, Basilone, Hartel, Ward and countless others, about their everyday pain as they continue through life even as their loved ones become names on marble monuments.
As you enjoy your federal holiday, I urge you to include in your festivities a time to remember what Memorial Day truly means: a time to stop, put down your barbecue tongs and join the families and comrades-in-arms, and think, if even just for a short time, about the sacrifice signified by the numbers on the walls.
I urge you to take your children to a ceremony honoring those who have fallen. Take them to a Memorial Day parade. Put a flag on your lawn. Help a veterans' group. Better yet, help a "survivors' group." Attend one of the many services throughout the region honoring our war dead.
The Vietnam memorial honors the fallen. The Korean memorial also honors who fell. But, remember, these are not just numbers or names on a wall. They are your fellow citizens, who died in your name. Keep their memory alive.
Municipal Judge Patrick Dugan serves on Philadelphia Veterans Court, which hears cases involving military veterans facing criminal charges. The court offers specialized treatment to defendants pleading guilty to crimes involving post-traumatic stress disorder or other service-related conditions. Dugan is also a captain in the Army Reserve and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Judge Patrick Dugan can be reached at email@example.com.