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Christopher Holshek Headshot

Standing Up for All the Fallen

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A couple of weeks back, I had the pleasure and privilege of taking my Wide Glide on the "Law Ride" as the kick-off event of National Police Week. The parade of more than 1,200 bikes started at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., roared past the Capitol, down Pennsylvania Avenue, and ended up at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. The "Law Ride," however, pales in comparison to Rolling Thunder XXV, the world's largest single-day motorcycle event, when about 300 times that number of bikes will shatter the air in Washington this weekend.

For policeman around the country, that Sunday was their Memorial Day. Every 53 hours, a law enforcement officer loses his or her life in the performance of duty. According to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a total of 736 police officers were killed on the streets of America since 9/11. Their sacrifice to public safety and security is as important as any member of the Armed Forces. It was an honor for me to ride to remember them that day.

Memorial Day is especially memorable for me. Hardly a day goes by when I do not think about Specialist Charles Bush, the soldier of the civil affairs battalion I commanded in Iraq who was killed six days before Christmas and just a dozen before our departure from the combat zone. Regardless of the circumstances, every commander who has lost a soldier feels a sense of unparalleled responsibility, a sense of failure in that one goal to make sure you bring everybody home in the vertical position, regardless how realizable. I can hardly imagine what it was like for Gen. Eisenhower, who wept bitterly in privacy the night before D-Day, knowing his decision was sending thousands of young men to their deaths the next morning.

I can, however, tell you that sitting in the living room of Bush's home in Buffalo, N.Y., as my final act as battalion commander, talking to his father for a couple of hours about his son, was the most humbling moment of my life.

Yet, our country remembers this holiday, if for anything other than the start of the summer season, only for the sacrifices of the military in the service of the nation. It is true that since 9/11, more than 5,550 service members have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, however, according to the Department of Labor, more than 1,230 civilian contractors never made it home alive, while more than 160 journalists have also lost their lives. All in all, an estimated 920,000 people have died there -- about 303 times as many people killed on 9/11.

Lest we also forget: the nearly 1,000 fatalities among those serving in the U.N., NGOs, and other civil society organizations trying to improve the lives of those living in those places.

It's extremely difficult, by the way, to obtain statistics on the number of U.S. Foreign Service personnel and development aid workers who have made the ultimate sacrifice abroad, but the estimates range in the hundreds for the same period of time. The fact that we do not have those data at our fingertips -- let alone for the "collateral damage" the U.S. military has caused -- is in and of itself a disturbing statement of our lack of appreciation for the sacrifices of all our public servants, as well as many more innocent civilians.

Their numbers, indefinite as they are, may not sound like many, but proportionally they are more than for the military, given that there are about 2 million in the Active and Reserve Components, compared to about 20,000 of their civilian counterparts. To be proportionate to military KIAs since 9/11, the figure for State and USAID personnel would have to be about 55, which we know is many times more than that. Congress should be demanding that kind of information and likewise acknowledging their sacrifice.

And hardly anyone, I'm sure, could get the final Jeopardy! answer to: Since 1961, 284 of nearly 200,000 volunteers that have served in 139 countries in this organization have died in service to their country.

The question, of course: "What is the Peace Corps?"

As for homeland security, besides the fallen, among nearly 650,000 full-time law enforcement officers in the United States, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, 1,160 of America's 1 million firefighters have died in service since 2001, as well as many other first-responders, rescuers, and community volunteers.

Perhaps one of the reasons Americans have a conscientiousness about sacrifice no less abstract than a yellow ribbon on their car is because Americans themselves have rarely seen the face of war, and not only because so few of them nowadays have been in harm's way in the service of their government (including a minority of those in uniform). In World War II, the last war involving American civilian casualties in an act of war until 9/11 and the first since the Civil War, about 1,700 American civilians were killed by enemy action, whereas more than 67,000 Britons and as many as 3 million German civilians were killed. As my English mother and German relatives have reminded me of since I was a child: Americans have no clue how lucky they have been not to have seen war. We forget that, beginning with that conflict, more than four-fifths of the victims of war have not been combatants, which may be why we have little sensitivity even for those, for example, killed inadvertently by drones.

Despite 9/11, Americans still largely think that national security is something that happens over there somewhere, dispatched by somebody else's son or daughter or, increasingly, done by remote control. And yet, as I explained in a blog on why we should transform Veteran's Day into National Service Day:

We have an opportunity to transition the meaning of national service to one which is more inclusive, as well as more relevant to a 21st century reality of security that is both more globalized and humanized. ... We have to come to a similarly expanded understanding of national service. There are many ways to serve your country, other than wearing a uniform. ... In an interconnected world, when you serve your community, you serve your country. ... Citizenship is not residence, and patriotism isn't something you feel or put on a bumper sticker -- it's something you do, for others.

As with Veteran's Day, Memorial Day evolved along a path of greater inclusiveness -- and should continue that march. Memorial Day was first called Decoration Day, to honor those who died preserving the Union in the Civil War. In 1926, Congress authorized and directed the Secretary of War to designate Memorial Day a national holiday and changed it from honoring Union soldiers to honoring all Americans who died fighting in all wars. As with Veteran's Day, it's time for another update.

Besides helping us to revitalize the meaning of citizenship, democratizing national service and sacrifice will do more than regenerate the civil-military relationship in America. Transforming these holidays to a greater level of inclusiveness will likewise help us find a basis of strength and unity in our unusually and dangerously divided nation. It will help put the unum back into e pluribus unum. While we still may not respect each other's opinions, at least we should respect each other's commitment to community and country. There is no reason why we cannot stand up for all the fallen, so that Memorial Day will honor all those who gave their lives in the service of their neighbors as well as their nation. We have to reform both holidays, by way, because it's the sacrifice that qualifies the service.

As Lincoln admonished: "Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure." That's true for all of the people all of the time and not just some of the people some of the time.