Let every day be Memorial Day

Every day for me is Memorial Day.  It has to be. 

My office sits only a stone’s throw from Arlington National Cemetery.  I cannot help but see each morning the row upon row of crisp white headstones set in sharp relief against the lush, green grass.

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I wonder as I gaze at them, who are the men and women buried beneath?  What were their stories?  Who mourns for them still?

Waiting on my desk are the latest casualty figures from Iraq and Afghanistan.  These are not just numbers to me.  These are Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen who have been killed or wounded serving something bigger than themselves.

They deserve my time.

Nearly every day I write condolence letters to each of the surviving families.  It is a somber, serious and yet somehow wholly insufficient task.  In three or four paragraphs you can never really stem the tide of despair that drowns a grieving father, mother, wife, husband, son or daughter.

I remind myself that just over the small slope of the Arlington grounds visible from my office window, not far off, lies Section 60, where many of these newly fallen find rest.

So many; so very young. 

It has been that way throughout our nation’s history — America’s sons and daughters fighting and dying so that the rest of us don’t need to.  This is the real, high cost of war.

And yet I have never been comfortable thinking of this day as one only of mourning and remembrance.  It seems to me it’s also about honor and courage and hope.  Somewhere deep inside, I just believe that those we honor on Memorial Day would prefer we focus on the lives they lived, on why they fought and who they loved, rather than how or even that they died doing so.

As Army Corporal Jason Bogar put it in a final letter to his family, “Know that you all are the reason I am here and to give my life for that is nothing to me.”

Jason was killed in a firefight at Wanat, Afghanistan on July 13, 2008.  He was only 25 years old.

And while it may have been nothing to him, his sacrifice is — and should mean — everything to us.  Because it is a debt we can never fully repay, a gift we can only hope to deserve.

One way we might find to deserve it is to make sure Jason’s family, as well as all families of the wounded and the fallen, get the support they need for the rest of their lives.  They’ve earned it, and we owe it — all of us.

Clearly the government plays a major role, and those of us in leadership positions are working hard to break down the institutional stovepipes and obstacles to meeting the unique needs of a new generation of combat veterans and their families.  But we must also recognize there are some needs best delivered and best administered at the local level.

I have spoken to hundreds, if not thousands, of our returning troops and their families. Most of them want what every other American wants: to lead productive, independent lives; to provide for their families, and to raise their children to a higher standard of living.

The government helps with all that, to be sure, but it cannot — and should not try — to supplant the millions of ways in which a soldier’s family or neighborhood or hometown can make those dreams come true.

To paraphrase the poignant words of a young woman named Courtney who lost her Army Special Operations father, every story about the loss of a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman is different. 

And yet every story is so much the same.

Every story is different certainly for each family; for you can’t replace a family member.  Courtney was eleven when she lost her father in 1994.  But throughout her teens and at her college graduation, her Dad’s buddies gave her fatherly advice and shared stories which, for her, filled in the picture of the person – the parent – that she never got to appreciate and discover as an adult.

Thanks to her father’s battle buddies and just one of the many organizations out there in what I call the “Sea of Goodwill,” Courtney and her sister are college graduates working in their dream jobs, reinvesting in their communities through journalism and teaching.

The way that Special Operators care for each other is not simply through funding scholarships.  They are a community, an extended family.  And I believe, across America, we all would do well to emulate the way they look out for one another: with family-like generosity.

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This Memorial Day, as we reflect upon and pay tribute to our troops who gave all, we should also reflect upon fulfilling our promise to honor dreams interrupted but not abandoned and everyday look for ways to fulfill and be fulfilled by the gift of the ultimate sacrifice of America’s military.

Let every day be Memorial Day.

Adm. Mullen is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.