It is Memorial Day, set aside to remember all who have served our country in uniform, and especially those who have given their lives to protect our nation.

Memorial Day is about honoring the individual and his or her personal decisions, not about the pros or cons of any particular cause.

I am a Vietnam-era veteran who served as a Naval officer for a little over three years.  I’m careful never to equate the little I did with the sacrifices made by those who went in-country during those same years.

Following are some personal thoughts about this day and about those whom we honor.

  1. It’s hard to visualize all of those who have given their lives for our country, but I can picture one young man and, in remembering him and praying for his family, I hope that I am honoring all of them.  Rick Burnett was the younger brother of a girl I knew in high school.  He was an easy going, funny kid who liked to make people laugh. Instead of college, Rick joined the Marines.  He died as a Private First Class at age nineteen on March 1, 1968 at Mai Xa Thi West in South Vietnam.  He had been in-country for less than a month (www.virtualwall.org/db/BurnettRJ01a.htm).  They said that he lifted his head to look over a wall, and a bullet hit him between the eyes.  He was never married, never had children.  I mourn for him and the thousands of young men and women like him who answered the call and gave their lives in defense of our nation.
  1. If the currency for defending our nation is the invaluable lives of our best young people, then we better be well and intelligently armed, and demonstrably ready to use force against aggression. That investment in equipment and our commitment to act are actually our best defense. But we should never take action until we are very sure that the objective is truly worth the incomparable price of a human life.
  1. We visited Gettysburg last fall.  If you haven’t been, you should go. There is an extraordinary museum (www.gettysburgfoundation.org.  Plan to spend a few hours there, then invest in two hours with a personal guide so that you can drive to the actual places where the battle unfolded over three days in 1863.  There is a lot to say about Gettysburg, but for Memorial Day I will limit myself to Pickett’s Charge.  Specifically to the individual mindset and bravery shown by each of the more than 12,000 men who marched three quarters of a mile across open ground, taking tremendous casualties all the way.  Today it is hard to understand how those men, having walked to Gettysburg from all over the South, would make that last charge for little more than “Duty, Honor, Country”.   But I suspect that in their day they would have said, “What else is there?”
  1. My father and his three brothers all served in World War II.  They all made it through and returned to raise families, but now they are gone.  Their generation is much discussed and rightly praised for their sacrifices and their duty.  And unless you really pushed them, they would never talk about it.  In a few years, they will all be gone.
  1. If you ever feel that you should complain about anything, read Unbroken by Laura Hildenbrand, the true story ofLouie Zamperini. He was a track star in the 1936 Olympics who became a POW in Japanese camps during World War II, and a true American hero. 
  2. Finally, and this may not make logical sense, but I’m glad that I was forced to serve.  Speaking of individual decisions, I would never have volunteered if my draft number in 1968 had not been so low.  And yet my years on the USS Wainwright (www.usswainwright.org) tested me and taught me in ways that would never have happened in civilian life.  Where else can a 25 year old have responsibility for an 8,000 ton cruiser, five hundred guys’ lives, and nuclear weapons, when you are in charge of the ship at three in the morning, and the captain is asleep?  And all the things that can’t be done, and yet still have to be done.  My take away is that on both a personal and a national level, we should have national service.  It doesn’t have to be in the military, and you could pick any two years between ages 18 and 26.  But sometime in there you must volunteer to serve your country in the military, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, as a hospital worker…something. I won’t win many friends with this idea, and to implement it would be virtually impossible, but I believe that each individual and our nation as a whole would benefit from all our young people serving in this way.  The greatest memorial to those who have served is to continue to serve, so that each generation does its part. To those families who have lost loved ones in our nation’s service, we cannot possibly thank you enough for their service and their sacrifice.  We will remember them, and we will also remember that liberty and freedom are very, very rare in human experience, and they must be defended, or they will surely be lost.