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Remembering and honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice

It began simply, as “Decoration Day.” On 19th-century mornings in late May, the graves of the nation’s fallen soldiers began to be garlanded with flowers and flags in memory of the loved and lost.

As with so many great American traditions, the celebrations grew up locally and organically. In the years after the Civil War, many hearts were bitter towards their fellow countrymen. But North and South, the veterans would put on their old uniforms and parade through the towns and villages. Speeches were given, and flags were raised.

Henry Sandham, in 1896, captured this American moment well in his painting The March of Time. The young boys who had gallantly marched off to join the Grand Army of the Republic 35 years before are now old, gray gentlemen. Their uniforms bulge at the waist, and the cloth that was once a bold Army blue is faded with age. Their eyes are proud. But there is a sadness there.

In her short history, the Great American Republic has seen many years of war. Americans have fought and died on every continent and every ocean. American boys are buried at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and at Shilo on the banks of the Tennessee. Americans, in their thousands, died in the skies over Berlin and Tokyo and Hanoi, in the frosts of Korea and the dusty ditches of Helmand Province. Many have no grave to call their own, entombed beneath the seas in the arms of their shipmates. On a cliff overlooking the sea, 9,388 Americans are buried in a green cemetery in Normandy where, 80 years ago this June, American armies landed to set Europe free.

The United States has not always gone to war wisely. We have not always won. And the price paid in blood and in treasure has, at times, come in too steep. Our country debates these things and should. But what we can always have confidence in are the young Americans ready to answer the call, put on their nation’s cloth, and take up the sword in her defense.

In a year of political turmoil and distress, in a year of many disappointments and cultural upheaval, let us honor the memory of those who gave their last full measure of devotion for their native soil, and for us.

“Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle,” wrote the Psalmist.

He is my steadfast love and my fortress,
my stronghold and my deliverer,
my shield and he in whom I take refuge,
who subdues peoples under me.

O Lord, what is man that you regard him,
or the son of man that you think of him?

Man is like a breath;
his days are like a passing shadow.

War is a horror, though it is sometimes necessary. May a just and righteous God bless this nation as we remember the young Americans who died so we could remain free. May he bring us, as Lincoln hoped, to “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” And may we remember this Memorial Day the memory of the fallen as they would have us do so: in peace and not in shadow.

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