Each Memorial Day, we come face-to-face with the human cost of freedom. While we observe the holiday to honor our war dead – not all U.S. veterans – it is nonetheless an especially significant day to our surviving veterans. They have learned the hard way, having lost friends in battle, that honoring the fallen is more than just a platitude.
Veterans know better than most that the fallen young we honor each Memorial Day are not just names on a wall. They are not an abstraction. They were real people, with their own hopes and dreams and plans for the future. Many of them dropped those plans to answer the call and never got the chance to pick them back up.
The wartime loss of our best young men and women leaves gaping holes in families and communities across the nation. In a tragic reversal of the natural order, it compels mothers and fathers to bury their sons and daughters, and young children to venerate mythical parents they never knew.
Returning veterans shoulder the burden too. They visit with the spouses, children, siblings, parents, and friends of their fallen brothers and sisters in arms. After their service, they find that they must forge a new life and identity, shorn of the mission and comradery that gave them purpose, all while grieving the loss of too many close friends whose lives were cut short.
While some veterans struggle to find their place in life after combat, most find that the personal grit forged through their wartime experience serves them equally well in civilian pursuits. In George Washington’s farewell address to the Continental Army, he urged veterans of the American Revolution to “prove themselves not less virtuous and useful as citizens, than they have been persevering and victorious as soldiers.” Today’s veterans continue to live up to that charge.
Yet even decades later, as veterans reap the hard-won blessings afforded by our great country, their minds endlessly return to the young dead who never got that chance. The chance to marry that special someone. To buy that first home. To bring those wonderful children into the world. To experience the satisfaction of a rewarding career. To reach their golden years, surrounded by friends and family, secure in the knowledge that they preserved the blessings of peace for themselves and their posterity.
As they shoulder these burdens, veterans must also find the balance between fostering appreciation of the honorable sacrifices made for our great country and maintaining their own personal code of integrity. In one of Shakespeare’s tragic dramas, Roman general Coriolanus disappoints the crowd while seeking public office by refusing to show his war wounds, finding it beneath his dignity. While angst over participation in this ancient custom may seem arcane to most, it is a dilemma familiar to many veterans.
Stories of sacrifice by our veterans and their fallen friends can move later generations to a deeper appreciation of the greatness of our country. The lived experience of survivors can also correct misperceptions that war veterans are too scarred to be social assets, needing instead to be pacified with government benefits and dismissed from the larger community.
But many veterans are quiet professionals, wary of contributing to these important narratives for fear of profiting from the sacred sacrifices of their brothers and sisters. Especially in today’s culture of victimhood, where success often depends on one’s ability to tell a compelling story of experiencing prejudice or adversity, veterans fear sullying noble service by seeming to seek personal advancement or victim-class status, even when their motives are pure.
That partly explains why you do not hear veterans brag about their wartime adventures or complain about their struggles. They are far more likely to worry about overstating their service and sacrifice. When asked about it, many are quick to volunteer that they didn’t do anything special. It is a way of preempting gratitude they have never felt comfortable accepting, especially when friends of theirs didn’t make it home.
What do we owe our fallen this Memorial Day? Remembrance, of course. Yet we can also strive to be a nation deserving of the veterans who buried our fallen. A country that believes in our veterans, that knows they have important contributions to make on the home front, and maintains its appreciation, even when it is never asked for.
Aaron Rice serves as the Director of the Mississippi Justice Institute, which brings constitutional litigation on behalf of Mississippians whose rights have been threatened by government action, and has won major victories for the personal, economic, and religious liberty of Mississippians. Prior to his legal career, Aaron served in the Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq, where he received the Purple Heart for sustaining combat injuries that resulted in the loss of his left leg below the knee. He is also a Truman Scholar, a recipient of the Buckley Award in recognition for his leadership in the conservative movement, and has been named one of Mississippi's Top 50 Most Influential leaders.