Service members in combat are deserving of our special thanks

The tone of the ceremony was solemn, with accounts of valor that were at once awe-inspiring and humbling. The mood was befitting this remembrance of the 15 explosive ordnance disposal technicians who were killed in the line of duty this past year. As the bell tolled for each of the fallen, their widows, children, parents and other loved ones grieved, while friends and colleagues somberly reflected on the rich lives and great deeds of their former comrades.

Earlier this month, on May 7th, I had the distinct privilege of participating in this poignant scene — a memorial service in honor of all EOD technicians, from all of the Services, who made the ultimate sacrifice in the performance of their duties. Two of them from this past year were Airmen, to whose widows I presented, with a heavy heart and on behalf of a grateful nation, a folded flag of the United States of America. 

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The job of EOD technicians is extraordinarily dangerous: to approach a life-threatening hazard, disarm it and “render it safe.” Their work begins with a dangerous circumstance, and, ideally, concludes with a safe situation, as well as a debt of gratitude among those who are protected. On the same day that we conducted this Joint EOD memorial service at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, U.S. service members and coalition partners at an air base in Southwest Asia gathered for a five-kilometer run to celebrate the first national Explosive Ordnance Disposal Day, honoring fallen EOD technicians and expressing their gratitude for the singular commitment of EOD technicians to their vital, life-saving mission. 

Disposing of explosive devices — from manufactured conventional military ordnance to the improvised explosive devices that have become a staple of our adversaries — has been and always will be inherently dangerous work. Despite the intense training, exacting standards of performance, and unfaltering professionalism of our EOD technicians, some encounters with explosive devices unfortunately will claim the lives of these heroes.

The same can be said for virtually all service members serving in combat roles. Our Battlefield Airmen — special tactics officers, combat rescue officers, combat controllers, pararescuemen, tactical air control party personnel, and combat weathermen — are highly-trained, highly qualified operators who, at tremendous risk to their own well-being, are dedicated to serving their Joint and coalition teammates by providing unique air and space power expertise in a land combat environment, often far into hostile territory. Security forces Airmen, while defending our forward operating locations and protecting convoys traveling through hostile zones, exhibit this same rare brand of heroic concern for others. In fact, from practically every Air Force career field, Airmen in combat have taken a place on the most distinguished roster of heroes — that of Americans who have fallen, were captured or remain missing in action while serving our country. 

The Washington, D.C., landscape is replete with impressive memorials and iconic monuments that capture this essence of service and sacrifice. We who live here might even have grown to take such places for granted. On this Memorial Day, I would encourage you to take a fresh look at these magnificent places of honor, such as the World War II, Korean War Veterans and Vietnam Veterans memorials, and perhaps the most hallowed of all grounds, Arlington National Cemetery. 

To get a genuine sense of the unassuming nobility of those who serve, I also recommend you to visit the many memorials throughout our Air Force. Although understated and lesser known, these memorials convey, above all, our Airmen’s sense of duty. The Joint EOD Memorial at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida is one such place. Another is a permanent exhibit at the Air Force Security Forces Center at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, as well as the Air Force Security Forces Association Memorial at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which honors fallen “Defenders” who protect our forces and facilities. Other memorials pay respect to fallen Battlefield Airmen, such as exhibits at the Combat Control School at Pope Field in North Carolina and the Pararescue and Combat Rescue Officer School at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. In 2009, a monument at Hurlburt Field in Florida was dedicated to the tactical air control party community, including those killed in action. These memorials, and others around our Air Force and military, bear compelling witness to the singular contributions — and ultimate sacrifices—of our nation’s best, bravest and most selfless: the U.S. service man and woman. 

As we take time for remembrance this Memorial Day weekend, we also pay tribute to the families of the fallen, captured and missing in action, who suffer the greatest loss and bear the greatest burden. Ever faithful, ever supportive of their loved ones’ service, our military families are a national treasure, contributing, if indirectly, to the military mission with great significance, but with hardly any fanfare. Therefore, let us also be mindful of the immeasurable debt that we owe to them. 

The history of our Republic comprises countless acts of valor by more than one million Americans who have given their lives in an unbroken, distinguished line of service. Let us honor this sacrifice by remembering those who have offered it at the most sobering cost, and the families that they left behind.

Schwartz is chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force.