Unquestionable Courage & Sacrifice

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The perfect symmetry of alabaster headstones, majestically holding formation along this national cemetery's pastoral hills, reminds you that our soldiers are sentinels guarding our republic, even in death.

On a sunny spring day, a lone figure held a tiny flag blowing vigorously in the wind as he knelt before a headstone. He held a conversation with a lost service member, perhaps a son or daughter, alternating between amusement and grief.

Taps played from off in the distance.

Only the heartless could fail to be touched by the raw emotion of that moment or by the somber presence of all of these soldiers who died serving our nation through the ages.

Tomorrow is the day that we as a country honor Americans who put their lives and their loves on hold, stepped forward to say “Send me, I will go,” and never came back.

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day immediately following the Civil War to give tribute to the 620,000 soldiers who died in that carnage, according to historian David Pietrusza.

“The ceremonies to mourn the dead on both sides subtly reminded Americans that such a division must never recur,” he said.

Today it honors all fallen American soldiers who risked everything to protect our homeland, our values, our Constitution.

Retired four-star Gen. David Petraeus was drawn to soldiering — a calling heeded by less than 1 percent of Americans — for the extraordinary privilege of serving a mission larger than self, and “the even greater privilege of doing that with others who felt the same way.”

Soldiering means service in missions of consequence to our country, and to our allies and friends around the world, he explained in an interview: “Service regardless of the challenges, the risks, the hardships, the separation and, most significantly, the casualties and losses — which Memorial Day remembers. Such service is the greatest of privileges.”

America has not always faithfully remembered that. Sadly, long-held traditions have fallen by the wayside in some locales; in those, the holiday no longer honors much except big car sales, the opening of community swimming pools, and an excuse for a long weekend.

Pietrusza recently found himself at a cemetery on a Memorial Day, just as an honor guard prepared to fire off a ceremonial round.

“Years ago, the public would gather in large numbers around such a ceremony, hear the speeches, say a prayer, as children would scamper about to retrieve the shell casings,” he said sadly. “My wife and I were the only ones there — the only ones there … .”

America has experienced many unsatisfactory wars of late, and wars often become political weaponry.

Yet, since the Vietnam War, we have learned that it is OK to honor those who serve while questioning a war's effectiveness.

Petraeus said the bedrock of our concept of military service is that those who raise their right hand and take the oath will then execute the policies of those elected to set them, “even if that means deploying to a combat zone, even if it means executing a policy which some of our fellow citizens may question or oppose.”

“I firmly believe that it is the duty of those in uniform to do just that,” he said.

He believes the performance of those with whom he was privileged to serve post-9/11 was truly magnificent: “In fact, they clearly deserve recognition as ‘America's New Greatest Generation.'”

Before we turn on the grill or head to the beach tomorrow, we should stop at a cemetery and say a prayer or leave flowers or a flag at the grave of a fallen soldier.

Don't worry, there will be hundreds at any given cemetery.

Remember, they died protecting you. Whether you agreed politically with their war, you owe them a wealth of gratitude, not only for yourself but for your family's future generations.

There is a lot to question about any war. But courage and sacrifice remain virtues — and we Americans still honor those virtues in our soldiers.

Tomorrow should not just be an extended weekend. It should be a time of reflection about those who sacrificed all to ensure that our great nation stays free.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com
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