Honor the heroes who have given their lives for the pursuit of freedom

It’s hard to believe another Memorial Day is here. It seems that in today’s world, time rushes by and before we know it, we’ve come full circle.

Another case in point — nearly 10 years has passed since September 11, 2001. Surely all of us remember where we were and what we were doing on that fateful morning. It’s hard to believe almost 10 years have come and gone.

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This also means our nation has been at war for nearly a decade. These 10 years represent the longest period of combat operations our country has endured. Even more amazing — every single Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine and Coast Guard member serving today volunteered to join the military. I am humbled by this.

But volunteering is the DNA upon which the National Guard was founded. For almost 375 years, indeed since 1636, when citizens of the colonies laid down their plows and picked up their muskets to protect their fellow citizens, America’s National Guard has been there. We have never missed the call.

In today’s wars, our Soldiers and Airmen contribute mightily. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a great toll. Some 6,000 members of our armed forces have given their lives. As I write this, more than 650 citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen from the National Guard have perished since 9/11. 

Your National Guard has undergone an historic transformation over the last 10 years, becoming today what can only be referred to as a national treasure. 

What the nation has now in its National Guard is the best trained, best equipped and most experienced Guard ever. We have become an operational force with myriad capabilities that span the full spectrum of military operations. And, we still maintain our community-based perspective, responding to help our fellow citizens in time of need here at home.

This is somewhat different from the National Guard people may remember from 10 or more years ago. In those days, resources were not focused in the same way as they are today.  

Now, it’s an entirely different story. Our country relies on, even at times depends on, the proven skills and abilities of our National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, and resources it with that in mind.

As the landscape of tomorrow stretches out before our nation, I believe we must take to the task of considering what the Guard of the future might look like. 

The country will most certainly expect us to continue to be ready, trained and capable, just as we have been for the better part of the last 10 years. But, resources are precious. I know decisions about the Guard of the future won’t be taken lightly, and I’m looking forward to being part of the process. 

Perhaps, more importantly, focusing on the Guard’s future is the best way to honor all of our fallen. These brave men and women did more for our country than pay the ultimate sacrifice. They led the way through the creation of our nation. 

They fought and died in the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War and more. They broke out of the Cold War mindset, led the way through this decade-long transformation, and helped shape this 21st-century National Guard, which is unlike any other in our history. What a wonderful legacy. What a tremendous value to America.

Memorial Day has roots that go back to a time when summers were for planting crops and tending fields rather than for vacation planning. I certainly don’t have to tell Americans that Memorial Day is far more than the beginning of summer. 

Simply put, Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who have given their lives for our nation. 

We can ill afford to forget our fallen or their sacrifices. Honoring them should not simply be a function of our thoughts but can and should be manifested through our deeds throughout the year. 

As you reflect on this Memorial Day, I ask each of you to remember all who have given their lives serving our great nation through the course of our history. They are all — each and every one — heroes. And, please remember their families. Wish for them comfort amid their grief.

McKinley is chief of the National Guard Bureau.