“He gallantly gave his life for his country.” — Harry S. Truman
I think most people believe that in war if you die, you do so by getting shot, it sucks for a few minutes, and then it’s sad. But war is unimaginably more grotesque and depraved than that. The maiming and disfigurement of the human body in ways too graphic to describe is the default of war. On a macro level, the scale at which humans are mutilated is nearly impossible for the civilian mind to grasp. We can never forget our freedoms are inextricably linked to the horrors endured and sacrifices made by our fallen soldiers.
Even before facing the grim prospect of death via enemy artillery, our veterans endured mother nature’s fiercest attacks. The freezing conditions at Valley Forge, the Ardennes Forest, and the Chosin Reservoir. The blistering heat of the Wilderness Campaign, Peleliu, and the Anbar Province. The rampant disease that took more American lives than did the enemy in American wars before WWII.
As a civilian, no matter how many miles I run, how many hours I work, how taxing any physically or mentally challenging endeavor may seem — those challenges will never be done next to exploding shells, whizzing bullets, and facing near certain death. I will not be in conditions so cold I take morphine to relieve the pain, I won’t be in 130° weather weighed down by 50lbs of equipment not knowing if shelter awaits me in hours, days, weeks, or never. I will not catch malaria or contract gangrene. Overcoming fatigue won’t mean the difference between life or death.
The reality of war, the human toll, is the price we pay for freedom. The price they paid for our freedom. They are not here to bear the fruit of their labor, it was a gift we mustn’t take for granted.
The Civil War was the most gruesome war. Over 700,000 dead, and more than 1.5 million casualties. All without anesthesia, morphine, or antibiotics. Over 360,000 Union soldiers gave their life to free the slaves. What more can you ask of someone than for them to sacrifice their sole existence on earth?
Those men gave everything for the cause of human freedom. They did so to protect the country founded on the idea that everyone is created equal and that no one else may deny us our life, liberty, and property. They made that extraordinary sacrifice, to extend that promise, to slaves on plantations across the South without knowing their names, faces, fears, ambitions, or souls. That is America.
That same promise, of individual liberty and justice for all, is what our brave men and women continue to die for everyday. Our military is now an all volunteer force. While the spectrum of ambitions may be broad, every service member swears the same oath of their own volition— to support and defend the Constitution. That revolutionary document, the first and strongest of its kind, codifies our natural rights into ink and defines a governing structure meant to secure our peace and freedom at the behest of our consent.
There have always been people in this world who are willing and able to die in an effort to remove our freedoms. The nature of humanity is not free. The cold reality of the world is that the price of protecting our freedoms is blood. Over 1 million Americans have paid that price. It’s sobering to grasp that everyday in American is provided for at their expense.
We will never be able to repay the debt owed to those who gave everything to defend these United States. We will never be able to simply say thanks. What we can do is keep their memory alive. We can take the time and effort to make sure their sacrifice is never forgotten. That their iron will and selflessness serves as a lodestar, a guiding standard which we may constantly strive to embody.
We can also support our veterans we’re lucky enough to be able to call neighbors. Those who made the same choices as the ones who didn’t come home. Such as Corporal Kyle Carpenter who on November 21, 2010, in Marjah, Helmand Province Afghanistan made the choice to use his body, his life, to smother a grenade protecting the lives of his fellow Marines. The same choice Petty Officer Michael A. Monsoor made on September 29, 2006 in Ramadi Iraq when he too smothered a grenade, saving the lives of his fellow SEALs — despite the fact he was the only one who had the opportunity to escape the blast.
There are a litany of charities you can support, such as the Semper Fi Fund, Fisher House, and Stop Soldier Suicide — a cause that doesn’t get a fraction of the attention it currently needs.
We can also support our Gold Star families. There isn’t a single gold star mother, brother, father, or sister in America who hasn’t sacrificed in our wars. Their sacrifice is also worth remembering on Memorial Day.
The opening quote comes from the closing words of Corporal Joseph Vittori’s Medal of Honor citation. Vittori single handedly defended the vital Hill 749 near Songnae-dong, Korea by manning multiple machine gun nests after his fellow Marines were killed by the enemy barrage. He eliminated an estimated 200 enemy soldiers before perishing. Vittori’s heroics were beyond the call of duty, but the words — “He gallantly gave his life for his country” can be said for the hundreds of thousands of American men and women who never came home.
Major Douglas Alexander Zembiec, another late member of the vaunted 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines — known as the “Lion of Fallujah”, was killed by small arms fire in Sadr City on May 11, 2007. An All-American wrestler at the Naval Academy, Zembiec was also known for his writing. These are his words:
“Be a man of principle. Fight for what you believe in. Keep your word. Live with integrity. Be brave. Believe in something bigger than yourself. Serve your country. Teach. Mentor. Give something back to society. Lead from the front. Conquer your fears. Be a good friend. Be humble and be self-confident. Appreciate your friends and family. Be a leader and not a follower. Be valorous on the field of battle. And take responsibility for your actions. Never forget those that were killed. And never let rest those that killed them.” — Douglas A. Zembiec
First published on May 30, 2021