Memorial Day 2011: A Salute to Our Veterans

An unknown U.S. soldier from the Civil War, his grave decorated with the Stars and Stripes and a Wisconsin state flag, rests in Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery. Joe Oliva photo used with permission.
An unknown U.S. soldier from the Civil War, his grave decorated with the Stars and Stripes and a Wisconsin state flag, rests in Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery. Joe Oliva photo used with permission.

By Tim Donovan


Memorial Day is the day America sets aside each year to remember, honor, and give thanks to all those who answered their nation’s call and fell in battle.  It is the day we formally recognize the cost of freedom and realize that price is not yet paid in full.

For those who have lost a loved one serving in the armed forces, this is a day of personal remembrance and often of deep sorrow.  But for all of America, it should be a day to express our appreciation for those who made the ultimate sacrifice and to honor our nation’s fallen warriors simply by not forgetting them.

For 236 years, Americans have distinguished themselves on the battlefields of freedom, fighting first from Lexington Green to Yorktown to win our nation’s independence, then fighting occasionally to preserve it or to free other oppressed people from tyranny.

In places far from American soil, courageous men and women—representing every race, religion and social class in the human mosaic that is our nation—have donned military uniforms, laced up their boots and defended this country. 

This is difficult and dangerous work usually done far from the comforts of home and family.

Americans in uniform have fought in filthy trenches… from flooded foxholes… on sweltering Pacific islands… on the muddy battlefields of Europe… the frozen valleys of Korea… the jungles of Vietnam… and now under the searing desert sun of Southwest Asia and in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Since our nation’s founding, more than a million Americans in uniform have died for their country and for generations of people they would never know.

More than 27,000 of them were from Wisconsin and nearly 3,000 wore the Red Arrow of Wisconsin’s famed 32nd Infantry Division—now a brigade of the Wisconsin Army National Guard.

In northwest Lorraine, in France, the 32nd Division was fighting in the final weeks of World War I, and in mid-October 1918 the division captured German-held terrain just east of Montagne-sous-Montfaucon.  Today, these 130 acres, framed by spectacularly pruned linden trees, make up the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe, in whose 14,000-plus graves rest many Red Arrow soldiers from Wisconsin who fell in battle at nearby Verdun or elsewhere in the Meuse-Argonne campaign that finished the Great War on the Western Front.

On this Memorial Day in 2011 we are a nation at war again—faced with the grim reality that the number of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have fallen in the War on Terror has now well surpassed the 3,000 victims lost on a horrible Tuesday morning in September nearly 10 years ago.

Words alone cannot adequately describe the pain that families, friends and communities feel or the sacrifices of the men and women we honor today.

America can, rightly, dedicate parks and monuments to the memories of our fallen—and such parks and monuments can be found all across the country and throughout Wisconsin.  But as Abraham Lincoln said on the fields of Gettysburg, “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have hallowed it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Lincoln told us these memorials are for the living, reminders that some men died so that others might be free.  But these memorials can offer only cold comfort to families who have lost their sons and daughters… their fathers and husbands… their brothers and sisters.

On November 21, 1864, President Lincoln knew as he penned a letter to a Massachusetts widow that his condolences were inadequate.  Lincoln wrote these words to Mrs. Lydia Bixby of Boston, who was reported to have lost five sons in the Civil War:  “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.  But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save.”

Lincoln prayed that Mrs. Bixby took solemn pride for having, as he said, “…laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

Wisconsin, too, has laid a costly sacrifice upon this altar—American heroes who left behind a grateful nation, a sorrowful state, and 27,000 grieving families.

There should be no limit to our gratitude.

On a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, where soldiers and sailors from the Civil War rest near airmen and Marines from Operation Iraqi Freedom—all within view of the Tomb of the Unknowns—these words are written:

“Not for fame or reward, not for place or rank, not lured by ambition or goaded by necessity, but in simple obedience to duty as they understood it, these men suffered all… sacrificed all… dared all — and died.”

As we remember the sacrifice of those who have given their lives, let none of us forget the million Americans and 27,000 sons and daughters of Wisconsin who paid the highest price in a world where freedom is not—and never has been—free.


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