On this sacred day of remembrance, we pay tribute to the fallen warriors who gave their dying breath in service to this exceptional nation.
In the soil of a thousand battlefields and hometown cemeteries lie the greatest heroes of our shared history. Their final acts of devotion fill every patriot’s heart with awe, respect, and pride. Today, more than any other day, our country gives them the recognition that they deserve.
The Memorial Day tradition began over a century-and-a-half ago as "Decoration Day." In the aftermath of the Civil War, families and communities gathered together and adorned the grave markers of their fallen loved ones with flags and flowers.
The custom continued, and today Gold Star families, aging battle buddies, and childhood friends will make similar pilgrimages to the final resting places of our beloved heroes. Thousands of Americans will come to talk, pray, cry, reminisce, and silently salute. They will leave pictures, bouquets, ID tags and keepsakes on graves and headstones.
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When I had the honor of serving in The Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, we regularly saw these tokens of remembrance. Over time, they tended to fall out of place. When they did, we would pick them up, clean them off, and place the mementoes back in place. That wasn’t part of our mission, but we did it without orders or direction.
These tokens told a story of unbelievable sacrifice; of parents that never had the chance to attend a daughter’s wedding, never taught their son to ride a bike, never met their grandchildren, and never experienced a heartwarming reunion with their spouse after deployment.
The simple white headstones that mark military graves at Arlington National Cemetery cannot fully convey each warrior’s story and devotion to duty. But beneath them are men and women whose love for country was so great that they were willing to forsake all future happiness in this world, for America – and many did. Their sacrifices make those gardens of stone our nation’s most sacred shrine.
Our allies and hundreds of millions of their citizens live in freedom today because of the sacrifices of American troops.
Whether on the roaring tarmac of Dover or in the quiet shade of the cemetery, the soldiers of The Old Guard never forgot and always honored those who fell in battle – because at Arlington, every day is Memorial Day. A similar reverence is shared on small church plots and on the sites of great American battles at home and abroad. Loyal caretakers preserve the memory of the hallowed dead at Gettysburg and the warriors of the First and Second World Wars, who lie beneath the only foreign soil that we took in return for saving freedom.
Above these burial grounds flies the American flag. That glorious symbol that was so important in life watches over their memory in death.
Just below the red, white and blue of Old Glory is a second black-and-white flag. The POW-MIA flag commemorates the tens of thousands of service members who have not yet returned home to rest in American soil. Emblazoned on that banner are the four words "You Are Not Forgotten." Indeed, they are not, and today we should also pay special tribute to their memory and rededicate ourselves to their return.
Although Memorial Day is naturally somber, we should also view this day with pride. The sacrifice of these champions of liberty was never in vain. Their legacy does not stop at the front gate or furthest blade of grass in the cemetery – it stretches from sea to shining sea in our great continental nation, still unbowed by the enemies of freedom.
And around the world, our allies and hundreds of millions of their citizens live in freedom today because of the sacrifices of American troops. Compare the shining lights of Seoul to the miserable darkness of Pyongyang for just one striking emblem of their heroism.
Our heroes gave their lives for the greatest cause and nation in the history of mankind. They earned our eternal memory and our prayers of gratitude. They give meaning to the words "God Bless America" – God blessed us with them, and continues to bless us with men and women like them.