For the Americans who do take time away from their Memorial Day barbecues and road trips to consider the purpose of Monday's holiday -- honoring our nation's war dead -- the first thoughts will likely be of misty-eyed, gray-haired men standing at attention for fallen comrades from wars long ago.
But at a time when the American military is fighting across the globe, Memorial Day is a very modern affair.
6,013 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have laid down their lives for their comrades and their country in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the decade-long war against Islamist extremism launched after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Dedicated chroniclers of these sacrifices, including Fox News colleague LtCol. Oliver North, have done tremendous work in preserving this heroism for posterity. Each life lost could merit a book of its own, but Power Play offers the stories of just five men who remind us of the gallantry of our fighting forces on this Memorial Day.
May we be worthy of their sacrifices.
Master-at-Arms Second Class (SEAL) Michael A. Monsoor, U.S. Navy
On Sept. 29, 2006, the city of Ramadi, in Iraq's Anbar Province, may have been the deadliest place in the world. Foreign fighters and local insurgents were determined to drive American forces from the city in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. Allied forces had begun a counteroffensive that summer aimed to break the back of the insurgency and some of the most vicious fighting of the war ensued.
That's where Mike Monsoor found himself -- standing on a rooftop with two fellow SEAL snipers in the middle of a fierce fire fight as part of an operation known as "Kentucky Jumper." Monsoor was already a highly-decorated combat veteran, just the kind of guy you would like at your side.
According to the accounts of his comrades, an insurgent hurled a grenade that struck 25-year-old Monsoor, landing at his feet. The Long Beach, Calif., native jumped on the explosive device saving the lives of his men. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and in 2008, President George W. Bush presented his parents with their son's Medal of Honor, our nation's highest recognition for valor.
His citation reads in part: "By his undaunted courage, fighting spirit and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of certain death, Petty Officer Monsoor gallantly gave his life for country, thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and upholding the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
Today, Mansoor has a Navy destroyer named in his honor.
Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, U.S. Army
The valleys of eastern Afghanistan's Kunar Province have seen some of the most fearsome fighting of the war. The remote villages, a sometimes hostile local population and proximity to the Taliban and Al Qaeda hideouts in Pakistan have made Kunar hard country to tame. All four of the Medals of Honor awarded for Afghan service have been for heroics in Kunar.
One of those recipients was Staff Sgt. Robert Miller, who was killed on Jan. 25, 2008, while leading a 24-man team as part of a mission to drive insurgents from one of those deadly valleys. Miller's patrol came upon an insurgent compound and he decided to engage the enemy, calling in airstrikes and opening fire before the enemy could escape.
They had kicked over a hornet's nest. Some 150 fighters emerged to surround Miller's crew, pouring fire on the Americans who suddenly found themselves pinned down, outgunned and outnumbered.
Miller, a 24-year-old Green Beret from Wheaton, Ill., rallied his squad but decided to fall back until air support could arrive. It is what he did next that earned Miller his place in history.
As President Obama said in presenting Miller's Medal of Honor to his family:
"Rob moved in the other direction -- toward the enemy, drawing their guns away from his team and bringing the fire of all those insurgents down upon himself.
"The fighting was ferocious. Rob seemed to disappear into clouds of dust and debris, but his team could hear him on the radio, still calling out the enemy's position. And they could hear his weapon still firing as he provided cover for his men. And then, over the radio, they heard his voice. He had been hit. But still, he kept calling out enemy positions. Still, he kept firing. Still, he kept throwing his grenades. And then they heard it -- Rob's weapon fell silent."
His comrades would, with the help of reinforcements, later fight their way back to the compound to recover his body.
Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham, USAF
The Air Force Cross has been awarded only 192 times since it was established in 1964. It has been awarded only twice in the current conflicts -- both posthumously for actions in Afghanistan.
Senior Airman Jason Cunningham was serving as a pararescueman near the village of Marzak, Afghanistan in March of 2002. On a mission to recover two American servicemen evading capture in an area heavily occupied by Al Qaeda and the Taliban, his helicopter was struck by an RPG and crash-landed in the midst of small arms fire.
Despite great risk to his life, Cunningham remained in the burning fuselage to treat the wounded, and then successfully helped move them through extreme danger to not one, not two, but three casualty collection points under fire. By the time he reached the third point, his life was drawing to an end, but his spirit refused to quit.
"Even after he was mortally wounded and quickly deteriorating, he continued to direct patient movement and transferred care to another medic. In the end, his distinct efforts led to the successful delivery of 10 gravely wounded Americans to lifesaving medical treatment," the record reflects.
Cpl. Jonathan Yale and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, USMC
Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly delivered a speech to the Semper Fi Society -- a group for former active duty Marines -- in St. Louis on Nov. 13, 2010, just four days after his son, Lt. Robert Kelly, USMC, was killed by an IED in Afghanistan.
Kelly delivered his speech despite his grief and never spoke of the loss of his son, but the general chose to close with the story of Jon Yale and Jordan Haerter, two young Marines who had been under his command in Ramadi, Iraq.
In the span of six seconds on April 22, 2008, Yale and Haerter acted to stop a dump truck loaded with 1,000 pounds of explosives and driven by a suicide bomber from entering the Marine compound. If the suicide bomber had made it through the gates, hundreds of Marines would have surely been killed. But he didn't, because these men did their duty.
In making his recommendations for the Navy Cross for the two Marines, Kelly had been able to review the recordings from security cameras made just before the blast destroyed them.
Here's how Kelly described it:
"You can watch the last six seconds of their young lives. Putting myself in their heads, I supposed it took about a second for the two Marines to separately come to the same conclusion about what was going on once the truck came into their view at the far end of the alley. Exactly no time to talk it over, or call the sergeant to ask what they should do. Only enough time to take half an instant and think about what the sergeant told them to do only a few minutes before: 'Let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.'
'The two Marines had about five seconds left to live.
"It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time, the truck was halfway through the barriers and gaining speed the whole time. Here, the recording shows a number of Iraqi police, some of whom had fired their AKs, now scattering like the normal and rational men they were -- some running right past the Marines.
"They had three seconds left to live.
"For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines' weapons firing non-stop -- the truck's windshield exploding into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tore in to the body of the SOB who is trying to get past them to kill their brothers, American and Iraqi, bedded down in the barracks, totally unaware of the fact that their lives at that moment depended entirely on two Marines standing their ground.
"If they had been aware, they would have known they were safe, because two Marines stood between them and a crazed suicide bomber. The recording shows the truck careening to a stop immediately in front of the two Marines. In all of the instantaneous violence, Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even started to step aside. They never even shifted their weight. With their feet spread shoulder width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could work their weapons.
"They had only one second left to live.
"The truck explodes. The camera goes blank. Two young men go to their God.
"Six seconds. Not enough time to think about their families, their country, their flag or about their lives or their deaths, but more than enough time for two very brave young men to do their duty, into eternity. That is the kind of people who are on watch all over the world tonight for you."