As a nation we could and should do better. America is faced with a world war on terrorism. We are just coming off a stunning victory in Iraq. We should all pause, reflect and offer a proper salute and thank you to those who gave their lives so that we may be free to go swimming, to play baseball or go to the Memorial Day sales.
Across the Potomac River from our nation's capitol each year a stirring event takes place. A few days before Memorial Day, hundreds of U.S. soldiers place small American flags at each of the 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. Those soldiers then stand guard over the gravesites 24 hours a day to ensure that each flag remains standing until they are removed after Memorial Day ceremonies have ended.
There are 260,000 gravestones at Arlington. There are hundreds of thousands at other national and private cemeteries here in America and on foreign soil. What a tremendous price has been paid for our freedoms. We should all remember that freedom isn't free! The price is blood and death and lonely families.
"Decoration Day," as Memorial Day was originally called, was first observed in the south during the Civil War. And now, 140 years later, we reflect on the many generations of heroes and the wars they fought. It may have been in the jungles of the South Pacific, the bloody beaches of Normandy, the icy slopes of the Korean Peninsula, the rice paddies and the highlands of Vietnam and more recently the mountains and caves of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq.
And we must always remember Sept. 11, 2001. That day brought conflict to our shores. Earlier this month, during a trip to New York, my wife and I were privileged to receive a private and personal tour and briefing inside the fence at "Ground Zero." It was a somber reminder that today there is another enemy attacking the United States and our interests around the world. Again, it will take heroic sacrifices to defeat this international terrorist enemy.
Memorial Day is set aside so that we may honor those who gave their lives for a noble cause. These were America's youngsters who left their homes, their families, their jobs, their schools, their factories and took up arms. They all had dreams of returning home. Many didn't. Their dreams were cut short by an artillery barrage, a sniper's bullet, a killer torpedo or the flaming wreckage of an aircraft plunging to earth.
As President Ronald Reagan once remarked, "They gave up two lives -- the one they were living, and the one they would have lived."
There are tens of thousands of grave sites today where there is no one left who knew these heroes when they lived. Time takes its toll. But we should never let the day come when none of us remember the sacrifices which were made for the rest of us -- the living.
Wars should be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, they are not. Currently, our nation is engaged in a war on international terror. It is not a war which we sought. We will win this war, but there will be sacrifice. There will be more of America's sons and daughters who will pay the ultimate price to preserve our freedoms.
We have just witnessed an amazing and successful military campaign in Iraq that ended the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. We did a lot of "high fiving" and congratulating ourselves with our quick victory there. Let us not forget the cost of that victory. More than 100 American men and women gave their lives. Hundreds more were injured.
And let us not forget those who lost their lives in the mountains and plains of Afghanistan. There too, America's sons and daughters continue to pursue international terrorists; and they strive to bring security and normalcy to that war ravaged nation.
Let me close by suggesting there are lots of days to go swimming or play baseball or go to a sale. This year I would suggest you celebrate Memorial Day by visiting a cemetery, a church, a chapel, a mosque or a temple. Say thanks to a fallen hero. While there, reflect on the four simple words which are inscribed on the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
"Freedom is not free."