Honoring Our Heroes

More than a century and a half ago, as our nation faced its gravest crisis during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln spoke of the “mystic cords of memory, stretching from every patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land.’’

From the founding of our great nation to the conflicts of today, the men and women of our armed forces strengthen those mystic cords. From generation to generation, they add new and everlasting strands of valor, devotion to duty, and sacrifice.


This Memorial Day, throughout Maine and across America, we gather again to express our gratitude. In countless villages, small towns, and big cities, we raise our voices in song and bow our heads in prayer in honor of those who gave their all for each of us. As we do these things, we are again reminded that freedom is a gift purchased at the greatest possible price.


As we come together in our shared gratitude, as we look down the rows of headstones, the flowers, and the flags, we see our history. It is a history written not by conquerors, but by ordinary men and women who answered the extraordinary call to defend liberty. Many brave American men and women have given their lives overseas fighting for the freedom of others. As retired General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “We have asked for nothing in return except the ground to bury them in.”


As the recent loss of six Marines performing rescue operations following the earthquake in Nepal reminds us, our servicemembers also are courageous and committed humanitarians.


The very origins of Memorial Day speak to these values. It is significant that a day dedicated to the deepest of human emotions – grief, remembrance and gratitude – began not by decree from any high authority, but with the spontaneous, heartfelt actions of ordinary people.


As the Civil War ravaged the countryside and took an ever greater and more ghastly human toll, Confederate widows and grieving mothers began placing wildflowers on the graves of their loved ones, and on the graves of Union soldiers -- the loved ones of widows and mothers they did not know but with whom they shared a sacred bond. Union widows and grieving mothers soon adopted that custom.


Those origins, those mystic cords, connect to our time. Were we to gather at any veterans’ cemetery throughout America or abroad, in December, we would look down the rows of headstones decorated with rings of balsam and ribbons of red. The Wreaths Across America project is Maine’s unique way of expressing the gratitude that is felt worldwide.


As we honor the fallen, we also honor those who served and returned home, and those who serve today. One of my greatest privileges as a Senator has been the opportunities I’ve had to visit our troops overseas, in Korea, in Kosovo, and three times in Iraq and Afghanistan. In them, I see the same courage and compassion that have been the true insignia of America’s armed forces throughout our history.


And while we thank our men and women in uniform, we also thank the families – the husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and mothers and fathers – who endure the separation, the anxiety, and, all too often, the grief that is also part of freedom’s price. We owe our veterans and their families our deepest gratitude. As a Senator, I am committed to ensuring that they have the care and services earned through their sacrifices and contributions.


Memorial Day 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. In Europe, the final, bloody push into Nazi Germany led to VE Day. In the Pacific, the path to VJ Day went through horrifying battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.


One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father taking me to the Memorial Day parade in my hometown of Caribou. He would hoist me high upon his shoulders and from there, the best vantage point along the parade route, I would see the hats come off and the hands go over hearts as our Flag went by.


Some years, he would wear his old Army jacket. It was not until many years later that I learned the terrible price he had paid for it – the Battle of the Bulge, the Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts. That quiet courage, that modest heroism, that desire to do nothing more after conflict’s end but to return home to a peaceful and productive civilian life is part of the history we celebrate today. It is a history we see from the shoulders of generations of such Americans.


Two and a half years after an inaugural address that reminded Americans of the ties that bind our nation together, President Lincoln gave what many regard as the first Memorial Day speech. It was given not on a warm May morning after the Civil War, but on a chilly November afternoon while the war raged on and the outcome remained in doubt. It was given in a place called Gettysburg. His words are as true today as they were all those decades ago:


“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 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.”


May God bless those who defend our freedom, and may God bless America.