They served, died so that we could live free

Who remembers the young man — just a boy, really — who was cut to pieces by German machine gun fire on June 6, 1944, his lifeless body falling to the sand of Omaha Beach? His comrades in arms, those still left among us, remember. They recall his name, his hometown, the trouble he got into during basic training, even what he’d hoped to do after the war.

Some family members have been told about him, though some cannot make his first name come to mind no matter how hard they try. They know only that they were told a great-uncle perished in “the war,” and perhaps that his medals are in an old chest in someone’s attic.

Do we, for whom they laid down their lives, remember? Have the fallen, collectively as well as individually, passed from our minds as quickly as the history book dates and places we read, then forgot?

We cannot permit ourselves to forget.

In the wake of the Civil War, our ancestors vowed never to forget. They set aside one day each year to place flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers, in a gesture that has become Memorial Day.

1,354,664. That is the number, as well as the government can calculate, of men and women who have been killed during our nation’s more than two-century history, while serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.

We pause today to honor them — and to express our profound sympathy to the families of the fallen. We need not know the details of when and where they fell. It is enough for us to reflect that they made the ultimate sacrifice not for some vague notion of liberty or freedom, but so that we, their fellow Americans, could continue to enjoy the kind of life they left behind.

We owe everything to them.

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