Let us use days like today to not only remember the fallen but to look ahead and make the best out of the lives that we’ve been fortunate enough to keep.
I had the distinct honor of speaking at two different Memorial Day Ceremonies on Monday.
This is the message that I shared:
Tamra Bolton states: “This is the day we pay homage to all those who didn’t come home. This is not Veterans Day, it’s not a celebration, it is a day of solemn contemplation over the cost of freedom.”
I am standing in front of you today because I am a combat veteran from Operation Iraqi Freedom. I served in Baghdad, Iraq as a Military Police Officer from June 2003 to July 2004 for the Army National Guard. I have a brother who also served in Iraq. He was a medic in an infantry unit serving out of Ramadi in 2003 and 2004. Yes. We were deployed at the same time. My father is a Vietnam Veteran and my twin brother served in the Peace Corps in South Africa. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my mom, who biked across the entire country in 2005 in honor of the soldiers overseas. She carried a yellow sign on her back in support of bringing the troops home as soon as possible. Additionally, I have a father-in-law who served in Vietnam as well as other veterans in my family including uncles and a grandfather.
It wasn’t until Memorial Day in 2004 that I truly understood the gravity of this day’s significance. On April 9th, 2004, my company lost its first soldier. Her name was Michelle Witmer. She was the first female KIA in the history of the National Guard.
We were on the same mission that dire night—guarding the Baghdad police stations against the insurgents. We drove home around 2 am after our replacements arrived. Her squad took one route home, we took another. I listened on the HMMV radio as she left this earth after being shot. She was the gunner in her vehicle.
As I reflected on her passing and those of the millions of other soldiers before her, I finally understood the importance of Memorial Day. It is not about the living. It is about those true heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom
Winston Churchill said it best when he said “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
As I wrote in my memoir, “Memorial Day is no longer a holiday, a time to cookout and party. It’s a day to commemorate fallen soldiers.”
I honor and remember not only Michelle Witmer’s sacrifice but a young man named Daniel Thompson as well. Upon my return home from Iraq, I received my sergeant stripes and Daniel Thompson was one of the first soldiers on my team. After my time of service was complete, he continued his service and volunteered to go to Afghanistan where he gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country in on February 24th, 2009.
I also remember my brothers and sisters in arms who are still with us today. The individuals I lived and worked with for over a year. I think about the person we turned into while we were deployed. The blood, sweat, and tears we gave to serve our country. The despair, pride, love, hate, fear, and joy we felt for 16 long months. Memorial Day is one more thing in our lives that is forever changed because of our time in service.
I have a wonderful neighbor named Doug who served in Vietnam. We often share war stories and last year he told me that he feels a connection with me. Fellow Veterans – isn’t that the truth? We have a special bond—something that only we can truly grasp and understand. If you are standing here today and feel alone or forgotten, please look around and find someone to talk to—to find solidarity with. We are here for you. It’s okay to not be okay. According to an NPR article from June of 2021, we’ve lost just over 7,000 military members since 9-11, yet suicides have reached over 4 times as many, at just above 30,000. That’s not ok. Don’t hesitate to check on your fellow veterans and make sure they’re all right.
Let us use days like today to not only remember the fallen but to look ahead and make the best out of the lives that we’ve been fortunate enough to keep. Life is filled with a myriad of opportunities. Let’s seize them and not let any one of our comrades die in vain.
The fallen fought for the United States of America—for a united nation.
Let’s unite with our commonalities and choose to respect and understand those who think differently. When I think of Michelle Witmer’s love and compassion she showed to all those around her—even to the feral puppies she adopted in Iraq, I know she stood for a United Nation. Not one divided over masks or guns or abortion rights. Because in the end, we all want what’s best for our nation and for our descendants. Let’s unite and find common ground instead of tearing each other apart.
John F. Kennedy nailed it when he said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”
How are you living your best life? How are you continuing to serve and unite the lives of those around you?
Jennifer M. Granholm captured my sentiments exactly when she said, “Ceremonies are important. But our gratitude has to be more than visits to the troops, and once-a-year Memorial Day ceremonies. We honor the dead best by treating the living well.”
Let’s come together in this divided and tumultuous world and treat one another with the utmost empathy and compassion regardless of others’ beliefs. We all fought for a better country, a better world, and we can only get there by accepting others and treating them with dignity.