Many Americans look forward to this weekend as a three-day holiday to kick off the festivities of summertime. There are hamburgers, hot dogs, and corn on the cob. Family and friends gather around picnic tables. Kids play baseball and there’s ball on the radio. Stores have sales. Pools open. It is a celebration of the long days of summer ahead.
But for those who have worn the uniform, hearing the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as we kick off a ball game or a parade can bring goosebumps or tears to even the strongest servicemember. “The rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air” aren’t just song lyrics – they were a reality. For many, it was a reality that resulted in lives lost.
As one American POW etched into the walls of a cell in Vietnam: “Freedom has a taste to those who fight and almost die that the protected will never know.”
I’ve talked to many of the buddies I served alongside and they say the same thing. There is a heaviness about Memorial Day that can be hard to shake off. We hear the voices and see the faces of the ones we marched alongside, and the friends who won’t be coming home. For many Americans, more than anything else, Memorial Day brings back a flood of vivid memories.
I remember walking through a room full of Marines – one of them was praying his rosary — as we took their buddy into the operating room in the 344th Combat Support Hospital in Iraq, where I served as an Army surgeon. I remember the feeling an hour later when I had to walk back into that room and tell them that their friend did not survive. I remember those we saved. I remember those we did not.
I remember the faces of the Iraqi interpreters I worked alongside in our hospital in Iraq, who lived in daily danger in order to support United States servicemembers. After sacrificing so much to aid the U.S. in this way, their lives were often in grave jeopardy if they remained in their own country. I remember those we helped seek asylum in America. I remember those who did not make it out of Iraq alive.
I remember and treasure my friendship with Army Major John P. Pryor — a talented and well-known trauma surgeon at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania – who said goodbye to his wife and three children on 9/11 and headed straight to Ground Zero to provide care. Moved by what he saw, he joined the Army Reserve and deployed to Iraq with me as a combat surgeon. John was killed on Christmas Day in 2008, when a mortar round struck near his living quarters in Mosul, Iraq. His wife and children never got to see him come home.
This Memorial Day weekend, let’s laugh and play. Let’s gather with our friends and family and celebrate the start of the season. But as we do, let’s not forget why we are able to gather in peace without fear. Let’s pause and remember why we can tuck our children into bed at night, safe, sound, and secure. The fact that we take these gifts for granted every day is itself a gift that our servicemembers fight and die for. So let’s take a moment to look up to the heavens and say thank you to those who put on our nation’s uniform;
Those who answered the call;
Those who – without fanfare or applause — kissed their children, their parents, their loved ones good-bye;
Those who cashed in their comfort, safety, and security for ours;
Those who served this country;
And those who gave the last full measure of devotion — the ultimate sacrifice — that you and I might stand here today.
Freedom rests on the shoulders of those who were willing to bleed and die to preserve this gift for generations of Americans they will never meet. As we go about our weekend, let us recognize and treasure every ounce of that freedom we enjoy – not in spite of, but because of the heavy truths that we memorialize this weekend: Freedom comes at a high price. Remember those who paid your bill, with their life.
The United States truly is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Brad Wenstrup is a U.S. congressman from Ohio’s 2nd District.