Remembering why we celebrate Memorial Day

May 29, 2023 9:14 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

These remarks were given today at Terrace Gardens Cemetery today (Memorial Day) in Billings: 

Thank you on a beautiful Montana morning. We are truly blessed in the “Big Sky” country: Vast skies, beautiful mountains and prairies, sunshine, fresh air, wonderful starlit evenings, the quiet, and above all—freedom. Freedom, like the big sky, is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? Freedom to walk, to think, to sing, to ride, to vote, to pray or not to pray, and freedom to choose.

The rain that came recently nurtures life and perhaps represents healing tears. Tears that come from the heart and flow across our eyes and our soul. Tears that cleanse, heal, and help us see differently. Freedom, like tears, ebbs and flows from generation to generation.

I am pleased to see the Billings Young Marines here today, and other young people, the youth of America. The brightly lit torch of freedom does not remain with just one generation. In time, we will hand the torch of freedom to the next generation of Americans as we received it from those who went before us. The next generation then must choose what they will do with freedoms and liberty—so precious to who we are as a people—and what price they will be willing to pay for it.

To America’s youth who are coming of age, we believe in you and have faith in you. But I must remind you that every generation of Americans has had to walk Freedom’s Road: from Lexington and Concord to Iraq and Afghanistan. It can be a long, lonely walk, when your legs grow tired, your lungs breathe heavy, when everything in your body, your soul, and your mind tells you to stop and quit because the journey, physically and mentally, for the preservation of freedom is not easy.

You will learn that one person can’t walk alone to reach a distant goal. But with courage and resolve you can lead and inspire others to follow and help. To the youth of America, continue to inspire us as a united people who firmly and righteously believe that freedom is a cherished virtue. Inspire us and we walk together—because we must. If not America, then who will?

At the end of the day, freedom ultimately does not come from the hand of man, but from the mind and purpose of a greater power, a greater authority, and a greater love. We can’t seem to agree on an appropriate name for this spirit, for this greater authority — perhaps names like Jehovah, Yahweh, maybe Great Spirit, Great Father, the Creator, or simply, God. 

Freedom and a greater love come from this authority and give mankind a choice: A choice to do good or a choice to do evil. Sadly, many times these fiercely collide.

War is a wretched debasement of the human experience, a defilement of the basic dignity of man. Defending freedom by shot and shell must always be the last resort when all manner of peaceful settlement of a conflict has failed. American lives are too precious to think or act otherwise. 

As with our Native American brothers and sisters in arms, the warrior tradition doesn’t always mean fighting, but it means holding to high standards of conduct and courage when facing adversity or challenges in our lives.

For as long as America lives proudly, walking Freedom’s Road leaves a daunting question: What does America owe, and how do we honor and care for the mortal remains of its citizens who have died in the military service to America? We are whom and what we honor. What does the word “hero” truly mean to you? 

The greatest tragedy facing an American in military uniform is not that they may be killed-in-action. The greatest tragedy is they may be forgotten: Forgotten in life and forgotten in death by the same people and country that all veterans past and present swore a solemn oath to defend.

Immediately after the American Civil War, America’s women, north and south, searched for the graves of their fallen loved ones. The love of these women rose above strife, and with honor and forgiveness chose the path of remembrance and healing. What graves these women found they placed flowers on in May.

Rain wasn’t falling on Nov. 19, 1863, at a small Pennsylvania crossroads farm town called Gettysburg. The greatest land battle in the western hemisphere of the planet earth had been fought there about five months before. Tens of thousands of Americas in the blue and in the gray fought and died there for what they believed.

After the battle, people began the terrible task of recovering the dead from the bloodied fields. Land was set aside for the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The dead were buried, and a dedication ceremony planned.

Edward Everett, a distinguished statesman from Massachusetts and a brilliant orator was invited as the main speaker.

Then someone thought that maybe the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, might want to attend. Lincoln indeed was an afterthought. He was invited to come and give “a few brief remarks.”

Lincoln, a tall, gangly, awkward looking fellow with big ears, long arms, a tinny voice, and wearing rumpled suits, was never a long-winded man but he spoke sincerely with courage, fortitude and compassion. He spoke from his heart. Lincoln said what he had to say, and not much more.

At the dedication ceremony, Everett spoke first. He spoke for two hours. When he finished the audience cheered.

Now it was Lincoln’s turn. He removed his tall stove-pipe hat, stood from his seat, took two handwritten papers from his coat pocket, and with a somber and grave countenance gave one of the most memorable speeches in history. It lasted two minutes. 

Lincoln finished, then sat before most of the crowd realized he was done. He seemed disappointed. Newspapers of that day either mocked or praised Lincoln’s speech. Everett wrote to Lincoln saying Lincoln in two minutes said what Everett needed two hours to say.

In those two minutes Lincoln told the world and reminded America why America exists. He spoke of what we are willing to fight and die for, and why we honor our dead in military uniform. In concluding his Gettysburg Address Lincoln said the following words, which echo throughout the human endeavor:

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

And with that Lincoln finished.

Memorial Day is an extraordinary unselfish thing that we do for others. I read somewhere that service is love in action. Sometimes when we think the world is falling apart with self-serving inconsiderate, and uncaring people, I respectfully ask that all America reverently walk through any veterans cemetery and remember what veterans did for us, for our children, and our children’s children—indeed for the entire world.

The American flag remains a shining beacon of hope for all the world’s people who yearn for freedom and liberty. A light in the darkness of oppression, a light for all the world’s people to rise and say that America truly remains a free and honorable people.

May God bless those who gave their lives that we may live free. May God bless and comfort the families who have lost loved ones in war and in the line of military duty. And finally, may God continue to bless this remarkable shining light of freedom and hope we call the United States of America. 

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Ed Saunders
Ed Saunders

Ed E. Saunders is a retired colonel in the United States Army, serving in the military for more than 20 years. He is also an accomplished writer, historian and photographer. He has written books on the unknown stories of women in World War I and the creation of the Yellowstone National Cemetery.