Reflecting on Memorial Day, I can’t help but think back to those holidays celebrated in wartime. I want to share some of the themes we discussed when we paused from combat operations to remember our fallen and to reinvigorate the ranks to continue the mission. During the typical Memorial Day Ceremony, we would have a military chaplain provide the spiritual context for the event, offering a prayer. We would have special music and conduct a ceremonial remembrance of the fallen.
In Baghdad, on Memorial Day in 2007, we rang a bell 64 times and read the names of the fallen, both American and Iraqi. I would speak about the meaning of the sacrifices given by the fallen and why it was so important for the remainder of the task force to complete the mission and honor those sacrifices. I would say things like,
“We have already shed tears before tonight over their loss. We come together to celebrate their lives and rededicate ourselves to the mission they began. This service allows us to pause and recalibrate our own energy and sense of purpose to the greater good, so that we leave this gathering refreshed and oriented on principles that guide our daily actions and serve our souls.”
Then I would ask the soldiers to recall Memorial Day Ceremonies and parades from their childhood,
“I want you to close your eyes and imagine that you are back home in New York, Indiana, Kansas, Florida, California, with your family. You are there at the parade with a daughter, niece, cousin, mother, aunt, uncle, brother waving a small flag, watching veterans, aged well beyond fighting years, march in step to a drum in front of horse drawn carriages. Close your eyes and smell the roasted peanuts, cotton candy, the aroma of an American parade. Smell the charcoal in the backyards of homes across the country as burgers cook. Listen to the sounds of children playing, water guns spraying, squealing with delight, not a care in the world. These sounds and smells and images of home are why you stand here today, so that others do not have to. These are only dreams to our Iraqi counterparts, in and out of uniform. But you and I know these dreams. We have lived them. That is why we stand here, protecting the cause of freedom and paying tribute to the sacrifices of those who have gone before us.”
Following the speech, we would solemnly listen to the names of the fallen.
”You will hear many names this evening. The fallen are listed by date of death, irrespective of rank, honoring the tradition of American officers and NCOs serving side by side with the soldiers they lead. They range in rank from Private First Class to full Colonel, and they also include our civilian friends and partners who have fallen with us. Their sacrifice proves what the Soldier has known for time immemorial, that freedom is earned. Those of us gathering at FOB Justice tonight know this truth all too well, as we continue to sacrifice in honor of those who have gone before and in the hope that those standing with us can be free men and women. They can be free of persecution because of religious beliefs, because of their accent, or because of the color of their skin. These names represent some of the finest warriors our nation has to offer and our enduring commitment to the good people of Iraq.”
As citizens of the United States and delegates and members of the First Amendment Voice alliance, I hope these words will inspire you to understand the depth of commitment those in uniform devote to our Constitution and the freedoms we each enjoy. You have a role to play as well. One where you actively exercise your first amendment rights as a citizen. You exercise your freedom of speech, freedom of religion, you support a free press and the right to assemble peaceably and petition the government for grievance. These are rights bestowed by our Creator and fought for by the Founding Fathers. Current and future generations of Americans and our partners continue to fight and bleed for these rights. We, as citizens, owe it to them to understand and exercise those rights. Democracy requires this minimum standard of its citizens. That is the only way we will thrive as a nation. We each carry a small portion of the flame of liberty within us. Help keep it alive through your active participation.
Have a Blessed Memorial Day!
Steven M. Miska
Director, First Amendment Voice