For many, Memorial Day is heralded as the unofficial start to summer – a long weekend filled with barbecues, boat rides and vacations. But the day should not be one of celebration, unless it is to celebrate and honor the lives of the hundreds of thousands of brave Americans who gave their lives securing our freedom. Memorial Day is about honoring the service and sacrifice of these brave men and women and every Soldier, Sailor, Airmen, Marine and Coast Guardsman who has given their lives in defense of our nation.
In the years following the Civil War, Wisconsin, and every other state in the Union, had to come to terms with the loss of more than 600,000 Americans in just over four years of fighting between North and South. Wisconsin, only 17 years into statehood by war’s end, paid dearly during the conflict, as more than 12,000 of its native sons made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the Union. Many of those 12,000 hailed from what would become the Wisconsin National Guard, but more importantly these were our forefathers, who willingly gave their lives – that future generations of Americans might live in freedom and peace today.
It is therefore vital that we, as a nation, pause on Memorial Day, and every day for that matter, to solemnly remember and pay tribute to our brave fallen who secured the prosperity and liberty we enjoy today.
During the Civil War, the Iron Brigade, made up largely of Wisconsin units, shed their blood at places like Gettysburg, Antietam and Bull Run, and ultimately suffered the highest percentage of casualties of any brigade in the war. On this Memorial Day, we remember their sacrifice and those of the more than 24,000 Wisconsinites who have died in the service of our country.
They died in some of the most hellish places on earth – Buna, Bataan, Okinawa or Iwo Jima in the Pacific theater of the Second World War. Normandy, Sicily, North Africa. On the killing fields of “No Man’s Land” on the western front in World War One. In the frozen Chosin Reservoir or at Incheon during the Korean War, over the skies of Vietnam or the sweltering jungles of the Mekong Delta below. Or more recently in the deserts of Iraq, on the streets of Baghdad and in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Each one of those 24,000 is representative of a life cut short...of a father no longer there to raise his children. A daughter mourned by her parents. A brother, a son, a friend or a comrade. Each one leaves an unfillable hole in the family and community they once called home, and those communities suffer knowing what might have been – the good those men and women might have gone on to do for the world or the lives they may have impacted had they lived.
Yet, with their loss, we take solace in knowing that these brave men and women accomplished something far greater in this world – that they did, in fact, go on to do good in this world and impact the lives of every American and every freedom-loving person in the world. They gave their lives to preserve freedom and secure prosperity for us here today and for generations of Americans to come. They gave up their lives, their hopes and their dreams for their families for something much larger than themselves – our greater good as a free human race.
The hallmark of their legacy surrounds us every day. We sleep peacefully at night without fear of waking up to a military coup or a new dictator with a different set of values. The tyranny and oppression that characterizes much of the world today is non-existent in our day-to-day lives. We worship freely, are free to criticize our government and its leaders without fear of retaliation, and we can rest assured that our children will grow up under this same blanket of freedom.
Yet we’re reminded of the price of all this freedom. We don’t enjoy it by happenstance. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” and his words could not ring more true.
We enjoy our freedom today because of people like Spc. Charles Kaufman, a Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldier killed in Baghdad 10 years ago this June, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle, or Staff Sgt. Todd Olson, another Wisconsin Army Guardsman, who died in December 2004 near Samarra, Iraq...or the other 8 Wisconsin Guardsmen – Spc. Michelle Witmer, Spc. Michael Wendling, Sgt. Andrew Wallace, Cpl. Stephen Castner, Sgt. Ryan Jopek, Staff Sgt. Robert Basham, Master Sgt. Brian Naseman, and Sgt. Ryan Adams – or the nearly 130 Wisconsin Service Members who called Wisconsin home that have made the ultimate sacrifice during the last 14 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Our freedom is thanks to these men and women, and the 1,200 Wisconsinites in Vietnam before them, more than 700 in Korea, more than 8,000 in World War Two and nearly 4,000 in World War One who laid their lives down so that the generations of Americans that followed in their footsteps could live peacefully under that blanket of freedom they fought so valiantly to defend.
We must never forget their legacy, and we owe it to our war dead to live lives every day that are worthy of their sacrifices. Cherish the gift you’ve been given, and take advantage of the freedom they have won for you to live the life they could only dream about.
Please take a moment to reflect and pay tribute to those that made us free.
Please also take a moment to watch this 60 second video from the U.S. Army about the true meaning of Memorial Day.