Midnight, on August 22, 2007, 10 young men marshalled together on a barren hilltop in Iraq to board a helicopter for the return trip to their forward operating base. They had just concluded a successful combat operation that had required them to remain in place for over 24 hours, with little sleep or food, while they ensured that resupply convoys were able to move safely and securely without enemy interference.
They were tired, dirty, and hungry and I’m sure they couldn’t wait to get back to our base where a hot shower and hot food awaited them. But they also knew that because of their efforts, their fellow Soldiers had been able to move freely and accomplish their key resupply mission.
But this would be their last mission. Shortly after taking off from that lonely, dusty hilltop, they along with the four helicopter crewmembers were killed when the helicopter suffered a malfunction and spun out of control into the ground.
These 14 soldiers are representative of the men and women I think about on Memorial Day. Men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice and whose commitment and dedication to their country and to each other represent the best in all of us. They are forever part of my memories and in my heart.
Even though they are gone, they continue to live through each of us, especially their families. I’ve met the families of the 10 men who boarded the helicopter that night and it’s an experience that I will never forget. Even against the backdrop of their sorrow, their resiliency and their strength is something that to this day I try to emulate. These young men continue to be part of their families, and their families continue to be part of me.
Memorial Day is about reflecting on the service and sacrifice of our fallen comrades but is also about the perseverance and strength of the living. This is the only day where the American flag is flown at half-staff from sunrise to noon, to honor our fallen comrades, and then raised to full height from noon to sunset, to represent our living veterans and symbolize the “persistence of the nation in the face of loss.” Those that we honor on Memorial Day, are still with us, in our hearts, in our families, and in the noble work of making the lives of veterans and families better.