Rep. Brian Mast: Memorial Day and my fallen friends show us how to thrive after coronavirus

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The coronavirus pandemic has confronted our nation with many unique challenges. For the first time in our storied history, Americans were asked to not go to work, to not hustle and to not exhaust ourselves.

Now, we are presented with an equal number of questions about how to move forward and re-open. How does America recover? How do we press forward? And how do we move on from the collapse of the routine that has always driven us on?

I believe that Memorial Day can help provide the answer to these questions.

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Memorial Day gives us answers because we can reflect and seek spiritual guidance from the most selfless our country has ever known. We look to their grit. We ask ourselves what they would tell us to do and how would they ask us to revere the freedom they gave their last breath to provide.

While they are no longer here to share what they learned in person, their stories leave us with lessons that are especially important in times where our country is challenged with adversity.

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Each week when I fly into Washington, D.C., I see the beautiful white crosses and Stars of David of Arlington National Cemetery from above. When my young boys, Magnum and Maverick, are with me we tour the seemingly endless Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the larger-than-life steel statues of the Korean War Memorial, or the expansive World War II Memorial. In my opinion, there are none from whom we can learn more than these heroes who gave it all so that we may live free. 

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Gracing the walls of the building that houses my office are the names of each fallen brother and sister from my war. Each day, as I pass through the entrance, I see the faces of those I knew, and each time my eye catches a heading for all lost in a given month and year my mind replays conversations had with so many fallen friends.

The etching of their names reminds us of their commitment to the fight and the way nothing would ever stop them.

Every time, I wonder if we are worthy of their sacrifice. Just as each soldier strives to prove themselves each day of service, I believe my fallen friends would want each civilian to strive to prove themselves each day of free life. In that, I believe, lies the answer to how our country recovers from this crisis.

So, this Memorial Day, I am reflecting on the sacrifice of my friends — that I served with, took fire with, climbed mountains in Afghanistan with, disarmed bombs with and took it to America’s enemies with — and the lessons we can learn from them:

Americans are never victims. If we wake up under the flag they charged into battle with then we wake up getting to decide that today will be a better day than yesterday and that this week will be better than last week.

I believe Staff Sgt. Eric Trueblood (KIA 03/10/2011) would remind us that we are not measured by what we do when something is a walk in the park. Rather, we get measured when we face something that seems impossible.

I believe Staff Sgt. David Day (KIA 04/24/2011) would tell us that the tougher the times, the tougher the people get built.

Sgt. Justin Allen (KIA 07/18/2010) was never one to feel sorry for himself, so I believe he would take on the challenge with everything he’s got — not once complaining. 

Sgt. Anibal Santiago (KIA 07/18/2010) would probably challenge everybody — in language that isn’t fit to print — to have the courage to get out and live their lives.

I believe Senior Chief Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician Craig Vickers (KIA 08/06/2011) would remind us—in excruciating detail—that, no matter what we do, every minute still has 60 seconds, each hour still has 60 minutes and each day is still going to take 24 of those.  We shouldn’t let time pass us by trying to evade life’s challenges.

I believe Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician Second Class Petty Officer Tyler Trahan (KIA 04/01/2009) would keep it simple: keep going no matter what, he might say.

I believe Capt. Kyle Comfort (KIA 05/08/2010) would remind us that even knowing every possible detail about the coronavirus that there is to know, there is still going to be risk. 

I believe Doc Jonathan Peney (KIA 06/01/2010) would tell us that not even training to be safe is safe.

I believe Sgt. Tanner Higgins (KIA 04/14/2012) would tell us not to waste a moment of this precious life that we have the privilege to live.

I believe Sgt. Andrew Nicol (KIA 08/08/2010) would probably say that he didn’t live in tents, cargo ship containers, mud huts and swamps so the people he fought for can curl up and hide.

Finally, I believe Sgt. 1st Class Lance Vogeler (KIA 10/01/2010) — one of my closest friends and who I would undoubtedly turn to for advice if he were still here — would share with me a couple lessons. Seek the positive in the negative, he would say. Commitment to life is not about the quantity of minutes we get but about the way we spend the minutes we have and how we effect those in our path.

A massive quantity of his minutes were spent in combat fighting for us. He was killed during his 12th deployment, just days after I was taken off the battlefield by an improvised explosive device.

Each Memorial Day I am given a renewed commitment to honor his sacrifice and the sacrifice of all those who were laid to rest beneath our beautiful flag of 50 stars and 13 red and white stripes. This Memorial Day, they all remind me that we are not made of glass and we don’t just break when we fall.

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I hope our nation can learn from them. We have been challenged by COVID-19, but Americans are never victims. If we wake up under the flag they charged into battle with then we wake up getting to decide that today will be a better day than yesterday and that this week will be better than last week. If we do not actively work to make it that way then we squander the life and freedom they gave everything to defend.

So, for those honored by the slow hum of Taps, I pray that this Memorial Day the crack of their 21-gun salute can be so jarring that it wakes up the world.

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