Throughout this decade at war, Dover Air Force Base has been home to a solemn, somber journey, one seared by emotions that are always new, always raw — the return of our fallen warriors.
From the dignified transfer that occurs at Dover to the reverent beauty of Arlington National Cemetery, where many of these young men and women are laid to rest, their loved ones are often with them every step of the way.
That expression never fails to move me. I think many more feel the same way I do.
On many occasions, people from all walks of life line the route as our Fallen Warriors return to their hometowns. Most stop and hold a hand over their heart or render a salute from the side of the road. They instinctively know this young man or woman’s sacrifice deserves their time and respect.
Whether or not such an episode has taken place near where you live, the loss of any young American in uniform — and a corresponding responsibility to their family — should be shared equally by all citizens.
There is another group of veterans to whom we owe a deep obligation — our Wounded Warriors. They too have sacrificed greatly, and their lives, along with their families’, have changed forever.
Some of these women and men are easily identifiable, bearing the physical wounds of war. Others are less obvious, contending with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS).
We pause on Memorial Day to honor those killed during our nation’s wars. Yet, we must also take time every day to care for those who have survived — the families of the fallen, our wounded warriors, and their families as well.
Despite the injuries and loss, their dreams have not changed. They want the same things we all do. An education. A job. An independent and productive life.
Sometimes, they need help to achieve those dreams. But what these veterans want — and deserve — is not a handout, but a hand up.
Our government plays a central role in providing for their most significant needs. It is a sacred obligation we will not shirk. But it is often their friends and neighbors — people like Annette Slaydon of Avondale, Ariz. — who make the greatest contributions to their recovery.
After her own husband, Christopher, was wounded in an IED attack, Annette applied her previous training as a paralegal to become a Recovery Coordination counselor at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz. Today, she helps our military and their families navigate between the wide range of services they need.
Support like Annette’s is in high demand. As she says of the Recovery Coordination Program, “there are people who need us, and I think the sheer number of people we are servicing at one time speaks volumes about the value of the program.”
Thanks to people like Annette, Wounded Warriors such as Mike Bradley are more easily moving on to the next chapters of their lives.
Medically retired due to PTS and TBI from injuries sustained in 2004, Mike had difficulty finding a job on his own. He mailed out resumes and endured many interviews, but the companies he sought out never called back.
Then, after contacting a nonprofit organization specializing in connecting Wounded Warriors with prospective employers, Mike landed an offer for an internship in the U.S. Senate and a job with a national security service company.
Like others in his position, Mike just needed someone to give him a chance.
Mike and so many others remind us that our security and prosperity comes at a great cost. In providing opportunities for our veterans to determine their own future, we honor the ultimate sacrifice made by so many of their brothers- and sisters-in-arms.
Back at Dover, the pitch-black night begins to yield to dawn, and the ramp lights fade behind a persistent mist. The flag-draped caskets are gone, and those in mourning retreat for a few short hours of rest before continuing their final journey home with their fallen loved one.
Nevertheless, the sun will soon rise. A new day will begin.
And on that day, troops will still be deployed around the world, still defending all of us. Sadly, some will come home to Dover, others to Bethesda and Walter Reed.
On Memorial Day, we pause to honor those who selflessly gave all to their nation. As we do so, we must also keep faith with our Wounded Warriors, forever support our Gold Star Families, and stand alongside those who still wait for the missing.
It is these efforts — not only on Memorial Day but every day — that truly make us a people worthy of their sacrifice.
Mullen is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.