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May 22, 2024

Memorial Day Mixed Messages — Getting It Right

“Always for them: Duty, Honor, Country. Always their blood, and sweat, and tears, as they saw the way and the light.”

“Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.” —John Adams (1808)

There are four national days each year when I have both the pleasure and privilege of dedicating columns to the military service of American Patriots: National Medal of Honor Day (March 25), Armed Forces Day (third Saturday in May), Memorial Day (last Monday in May), and Veterans Day (November 11).

Much as is the case with researching and writing our Profiles of Valor each week, I look forward to these four columns as a break from the rigors of political and cultural analysis. It is a blessing to focus on the goodness of American Patriots who have served all of us with honor and distinction, many at mortal risk to their own lives.

Memorial Day, as detailed in our tribute page, is reserved to honor those who have given their lives in the uniformed services of our nation — those who died in combat defending their brothers in arms to sustain the Liberty we enjoy in accordance with their oaths “to Support and Defend” our Constitution.

Unfortunately, there will be mixed messages this weekend, and we should call them what they are.

One mixed message will be the presence of Joe Biden on hallowed ground, assuming he will be propped up to deliver some remarks at Arlington National Cemetery. His hollow words will be against a backdrop of administrative ineptitude. His record of undermining military morale and readiness, and the national security of our nation, is rivaled only by two former presidents in the last century: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Another mixed message will be the saturation of consumers with “Memorial Day Sales,” disgracefully using the blood of our nation’s Patriot sons and daughters as fodder for profiteering. Fact is, as I wrote years ago, “Memorial Day Is NOT on Sale.” More than 1.3 million American Patriots have already paid the full price.

And there are the mixed messages propagated by a handful of organizations that continue to dishonor our fallen by promoting high-profile hero receptions for service personnel who did not perish in combat or service-related accidents. After my recent profile of one such organization, a Marine combat pilot brought to our attention more recent instances of airport “hero receptions” for domestic non-combat deaths. While we grieve for any family who has suffered the loss of a loved one, the organizers and promoters of these receptions dishonor our combat fallen.

We should not tolerate any debasement of the proper and profound observance of Memorial Day.

In his essay “The Contest in America,” the 19th-century libertarian philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war is worse. A man who has nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

It is that “decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling” that accounts for why so many “miserable creatures” have downgraded Memorial Day to nothing more than a date to exploit for political charades and commercial greed. Many Americans will be too preoccupied with “celebrations” to recognize the priceless burden borne by generations of our uniformed Patriots. Likewise, many politicos will use Memorial Day as a soapbox to feign Patriotism, while in reality, they constantly violate their oaths “to support and defend” our Constitution — as affirmed by generations of military casualties.

Those distractions notwithstanding, looking back over many years of Memorial Day observances, I re-read the farewell tribute to our friend, Medal of Honor recipient Leo Thorsness (Col. USAF/POW). His Medal citation profiles Leo’s valorous actions over Vietnam on 19 April 1967. Eleven days later, he was shot down and captured, becoming a POW for six brutal years.

Leo was a past president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, a rather exclusive group whose only membership requirement is a Medal of Honor. He was a lifelong faithful Patriot and genuine hero, a humble conservative advocate for family, faith, and freedom, and a strong supporter of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center.

He was the author of Surviving Hell, a remarkable testament to all Vietnam POWs and the brutality of their incarceration. His years as a POW overlapped with those of several other friends, including Col Roger Ingvalson and LtCol Bill Gauntt.

He also wrote “Mike’s Flag,” the preface to the children’s book I’m Your Flag, sponsored by the Patriot Foundation Trust.

Ahead of Memorial Day, it’s worth revisiting Leo’s preface:

What do you think of when you see our flag, especially when it is covering the casket of an American Patriot or in front of a grave marker?

Let me tell you a story about one little flag. As a fighter pilot on my 93rd mission over North Vietnam, my F-105 was hit by an air-to-air missile and my Electronic Warfare Officer Harold Johnson and I were forced to eject. After unsuccessful rescue attempts, we were captured by enemy forces and imprisoned in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for the next six years.

One day in our sixth year of imprisonment, a young Navy pilot named Mike Christian found a piece of cloth in a gutter. After we collected some other small rags, he worked secretly at night to piece them together into a flag. He made red from ground-up roof tiles and blue from tiny amounts of ink, then used rice glue to paste the colors onto the rags. Using thread from his blanket and a homemade bamboo needle, he sewed the pieces together, adding white fragments for stars.

One morning he whispered from the back of our cell, “Hey gang, look here,” and proudly held up that tattered American flag, waving it as if in a breeze. We all snapped to attention and saluted — with tears in our eyes.

A week later, the guards were searching our cells and found Mike’s flag and tore it to pieces. That night they pulled him out of the cell and, for his simple gesture of patriotism, they tortured him. At daylight they pushed what was left of Mike back through the cell door.

Despite the torture, the next day Mike gathered the shredded remains of that little flag and pieced it back together.

Today, whenever I see our flag, I think of Mike and the morning he first waved that tattered emblem of our great nation. It was then, thousands of miles from home, imprisoned by a brutal enemy, that he courageously demonstrated the liberty it represents, and that is what I see in every American flag.

Yes, the same Memorial Day flags that drape the coffins of American service personnel killed in action, and Veterans laid to rest.

Fact is, there are tens of millions of genuine American Patriots who will properly honor all our fallen Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who have refreshed the Tree of Liberty with their blood — indeed with their lives — so that we might remain the proud and the free.

Since the opening salvos of the American Revolution, more than 1.3 million American Patriots have died in defense of Liberty. Additionally, 1.4 million have been wounded in combat, and tens of millions more have served honorably, surviving without physical wounds but many with wounds unseen. These numbers, of course, offer no reckoning of the inestimable value of their service or the sacrifices borne by their families, but we do know that the value of Liberty extended to their posterity — to us — is priceless.

Who were these brave souls?

On 12 May 1962, Gen. Douglas MacArthur addressed the cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, delivering his farewell speech, “Duty, Honor, Country.” He described the legions of uniformed American Patriots as follows: “Their story is known to all of you. It is the story of the American man at arms. My estimate of him was formed on the battlefields many, many years ago and has never changed. I regarded him then, as I regard him now, as one of the world’s noblest figures — not only as one of the finest military characters, but also as one of the most stainless.”

Gen. MacArthur continued:

His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me, or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast.

But when I think of his patience under adversity, of his courage under fire, and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism. He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom. He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements.

In twenty campaigns, on a hundred battlefields, around a thousand campfires, I have witnessed that enduring fortitude, that patriotic self-abnegation, and that invincible determination which have carved his statue in the hearts of his people.

From one end of the world to the other, he has drained deep the chalice of courage. As I listened to those songs of the glee club, in memory’s eye I could see those staggering columns of the First World War, bending under soggy packs on many a weary march, from dripping dusk to drizzling dawn, slogging ankle deep through mire of shell-pocked roads; to form grimly for the attack, blue-lipped, covered with sludge and mud, chilled by the wind and rain, driving home to their objective, and for many, to the judgment seat of God.

I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death. They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips the hope that we would go on to victory. Always for them: Duty, Honor, Country. Always their blood, and sweat, and tears, as they saw the way and the light.

Duty. Honor. Country.

Hold fast to these foundational principles.

On Memorial Day two decades later, Ronald Reagan offered these words in honor of Patriots interred at Arlington National Cemetery: “I have no illusions about what little I can add now to the silent testimony of those who gave their lives willingly for their country. Words are even more feeble on this Memorial Day, for the sight before us is that of a strong and good nation that stands in silence and remembers those who were loved and who, in return, loved their countrymen enough to die for them. Yet, we must try to honor them not for their sakes alone, but for our own. And if words cannot repay the debt we owe these men, surely with our actions we must strive to keep faith with them and with the vision that led them to battle and to final sacrifice.”

President Reagan continued:

Our first obligation to them and ourselves is plain enough: The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we — in a less final, less heroic way — be willing to give of ourselves.

The willingness of some to give their lives so that others might live never fails to evoke in us a sense of wonder and mystery.

One gets that feeling here on this hallowed ground, and I have known that same poignant feeling as I looked out across the rows of white crosses and Stars of David in Europe, in the Philippines, and the military cemeteries here in our own land. Each one marks the resting place of an American hero and, in my lifetime, the heroes of World War I, the Doughboys, the GIs of World War II or Korea or Vietnam. They span several generations of young Americans, all different and yet all alike, like the markers above their resting places, all alike in a truly meaningful way.

As we honor their memory today, let us pledge that their lives, their sacrifices, their valor shall be justified and remembered for as long as God gives life to this nation. … I can’t claim to know the words of all the national anthems in the world, but I don’t know of any other that ends with a question and a challenge as ours does: “O! say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave, O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” That is what we must all ask.

American Patriots must all ask that question today and act accordingly.

Thomas Jefferson offered this enduring advice to all generations of Patriots: “Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us. We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them if we basely entail hereditary bondage on them.”

We owe a great debt of gratitude to all those generations that have passed the Torch of Liberty to succeeding generations. In accordance, I humbly ask that each of you call upon all those around you to observe Memorial Day with reverence.

In honor of American Patriots who have died in defense of our great nation, lower your flag to half-staff from sunrise to 1200 on Monday. (Read about proper flag etiquette and protocol.) Join us by observing a time of silence at 1500 (your local time) for remembrance and prayer. Offer a personal word of gratitude and comfort to any surviving family members you know who are grieving for a beloved warrior fallen in battle.

Finally, as I contemplate the current state of national patriotism on this Memorial Day, to genuinely demonstrate gratitude to all those who gave the last full measure and paid the highest price to sustain American Liberty: Strive to be, first and foremost, American citizens worthy of their sacrifice.

On this Memorial Day and every day of the year, may God bless our men and women in uniform who have stood and continue to stand in harm’s way. More than 41 million Veterans have served our nation since the American Revolution. For their steadfast devotion to duty, honor, and country, we, the American people, offer them and their families our humble gratitude and heartfelt thanks. It is with eternal gratitude that we remember those who have paid the ultimate price in service to our nation.

“Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

(To help others understand the honorable context for Memorial Day, invite them to visit our Memorial Day tribute page.)

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

Follow Mark Alexander on X/Twitter.

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