In this century alone — from the world wars to Korea, and from Vietnam to the First Gulf War, Bosnia, and today’s Global War on Terror — millions of Americans have signed up to protect this nation, and hundreds of thousands have fallen in her name. And yet, it is always one life that resonates with us on Memorial Day. One story that everyone in one town somewhere in America knows. One man or woman we honor and remember, because he or she made the ultimate sacrifice.
Earlier this year, we said goodbye not just to the last Doughboy, but to a generation. The War to End All Wars was not the signal of lasting peace it promised to be, but was instead a preview of the century ahead — a century in which conflict and battle would span the globe.
Corporal Frank Buckles, who hailed from Bethany, Mo., had a desire to serve that ran so deep that despite being only 16 years old, he enlisted in the Army in 1917 and drove ambulances near the front lines in Europe. His devotion to country lasted the entire 110 years he was with us on this earth. He asked for nothing in return, only respect. And not respect for himself, but for what he stood for — he was an American who loved his country.
Through Corporal Buckles, we were privileged to meet the millions of Americans of World War I who held up their hands and said, “Yes, I will go” — souls all now at rest, in peace. Frank Buckles helped us remember that generation, and reminded us of the meaning of Memorial Day — selfless sacrifice, no matter the cost.
The first Memorial Day was observed at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868, when hundreds of citizens laid flowers at the grave sites of Civil War soldiers. Then it was called Decoration Day, and the beautiful tribute to pay respect to the fallen fanned out through the north and across the south. The tradition became the common citizen’s way to demonstrate that we are all Americans, that every life is valuable.
Today, we place flags at the grave sites of our fallen service members. And with the passing of one generation, we are introduced to a new generation and new stories. Men and women who have also raised their hands, and said, “I will go.” They, too, come from towns around America like Bethany — Wade, N.C.; Preston, Miss.; Wicomico, Md.; Lincoln, Wash.; White Bear Lake, Minn.; Coos Bay, Ore.; Pace, Fla. — the list spreads throughout the land.
Their lives are irreplaceable, but they live on because we honor and remember them.
Staff Sergeant Daniel J. Clay, from Pensacola, Fla., is one of the more than 5,500 who have given their lives since Sept. 11, 2001. He is part of our new generation of veterans, the Noble Generation — a generation that came of age upon witnessing horrifying destruction and terrorism within our own borders.
Clay was a Marine, and he was proud of it, forgoing college to join the Corps after high school. He was killed by an IED alongside nine of his battle buddies in Fallujah, Iraq, on December 1, 2005. He wrote in case of his death:
“I know what honor is. It is not a word to be thrown around. It has been an Honor to protect and serve all of you. I faced death with the secure knowledge that you would not have to . . . ”
A tribute posted on a website dedicated to Staff Sergeant Clay summed up the helplessness we all feel when we learn of a life extinguished in defense of our nation: “I wish I could take your families and friends’ pain away, but I can’t. . . . Thank you is not enough, but it is all I have.”
Corporal Buckles remarked a few years before he died that when the Doughboys returned home, no one acknowledged their service. In honor of the Noble Generation, and all the generations of veterans past and present, I hope all Americans will take a moment out of family activities — barbeques, celebrations, and sporting events — to remember those who have shed their blood for this nation. That is the least we can each do this Memorial Day, and it is what all of us should feel privileged to do, every day of the year.
— Rep. Jeff Miller is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.