When was the last Memorial Day in which the United States did not have troops in combat areas? That thought had not occurred to me until Ryan Manion’s reflection on Memorial Day 2022, the first time in at least twenty years in which American forces had no formal commitments in combat theaters. Writing in the Air Force Times, Manion calls for using this day not just to remember those who gave their last full measure of devotion for our country, but to consider our responsibility for ensuring that we remain worthy of that sacrifice:
For the families who lost relatives in our recent conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan — for those whose loved ones are buried, like my brother, in Section 60 of Arlington — this Memorial Day will be especially poignant. Many of the young children of the fallen have never known their country to not be at war. It is the challenge of those families to make sure that a nation at peace does not lose sight of the sacrifices of war. All Americans should remember that while we may not see footage of our troops in combat regularly flashed across our TV or computer screens, the effects of those wars are felt by millions of our fellow countrymen. …
I know where I’ll be: in Section 60 at Arlington, visiting my brother who gave what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” 15 years ago, and those Americans like him who lost their lives in our recent conflicts. All of our volunteers who will visit these cemeteries have given up their days off on a long weekend, a small sacrifice in honor of those who made the ultimate. They have chosen to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Before Travis left for Iraq the last time, he told our family: “If not me, than who … ”
By asking ourselves the same question, on Memorial Day and every day, we can live lives worthy of the sacrifice he and his fellow heroes have given.
Ryan serves as president of the Travis Manion Foundation, named in honor of her brother, who gave his life in Iraq in 2007 while trying to draw fire away from wounded comrades. As she writes, Arlington and thousands of military cemeteries around the country and around the world are filled with Americans who made that same sacrifice. They did not make the policies or set the aims, but instead answered the call regardless to serve their country. Their families, such as Ryan herself and millions of other Americans, bear a form of that same sacrifice by forever noting the absence of their loved ones.
Today, we all reflect on those who are now absent from our families, our communities, and our nation. We reflect on the grief and love of their surviving family members, who yearn to see a just and equitable peace last for the rest of their lifetimes. What could these men and women have done for their families and communities if they hadn’t lost their lives in our service? That is a question that haunts us on Memorial Day, perhaps especially after the end of the twenty-year combat missions that (largely) ended last year. And it should haunt us, and remind us that our young men and women are a mighty but precious resource that should be conserved for great needs and overwhelming national interests.
These men and women loved our country. Let us spend a day loving and honoring their memory and their families in prayer and appreciation, perhaps even more solemnly in this moment of stillness.
Addendum: There are many worthy charities that serve the families of the fallen, but please do check out the Travis Manion Foundation if you’re interested in contributing.