06/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This Memorial Day, Honor the Fallen

Your weekend newspaper—assuming your town still has one—will be stuffed with pages of glossy advertisements for holiday sales.  Your local TV news will do a story on the folks waiting in line in the dark for your local mall to open its doors.  All weekend, people will be firing up their grills or spending a day at the beach.

Nothing’s wrong with enjoying your three-day weekend.  But I worry that, even after almost eight years of war, too many Americans see today as just another summer holiday.  Memorial Day should mean much more than barbecues and clearance sales. 

Today is a solemn day of remembrance for our more than one million American service members of all generations who, on the field of battle, made the ultimate sacrifice. For my part, I am honored to join President Obama and other veterans’ groups in the wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery today. It is a humbling opportunity to pay my respects to the generations of American warriors who have given their lives in defense of our country.

This Memorial Day, please take the time to learn a little about a few of the men and women who we are honoring this weekend.  Each of these servicemembers is a recipient of America’s highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor.

World War I.  Army Captain Marcellus Chiles and his men were near Le Champy Bas, France, when they came under heavy machinegun fire.   Captain Marcellus picked up the rifle of a fallen soldier and led his men across a waist-deep stream to engage the enemy. Shot in the stomach by a sniper, Captain Marcellus refused to be evacuated until his team was under the leadership of the next senior officer. Soon after reaching the hospital, Capt. Chiles died.

World War II. On Dagami Leyte, in the Philippines, Private First Class John F. Thorson was an automatic rifleman on a team tasked with taking a heavily fortified enemy position.  Under intense fire, Pvt. Thorson moved ahead of his team and single-handedly attacked a trench defended by several hostile riflemen.  Seriously wounded, he fell a few yards from the trench; as his platoon reached him, an enemy fighter threw a grenade into the group of men. With his last breath, Pvt. Thorson rolled his body onto the grenade.  Killed instantly by the explosion, he saved his fellow troops.

Vietnam.  Gray Martini, a Private First Class in the Marine Corps, was conducting offensive operations with his company at Binh Son.  Moving without cover over a rice paddy, the Marines in Pfc. Martini's platoon assaulted an enemy trench line under fire from grenades, rifle and mortar fire. Within minutes, 14 Marines were killed and 18 wounded.  Pfc. Martini crawled from an area of relative safety to hurl hand grenades, killing several of the enemy.  He then crawled through fire to rescue a wounded comrade. A fellow Marine had been killed in a previous rescue attempt, and Pfc. Martini suffered a serious injury.  Nonetheless, he braved enemy fire again to rescue a second Marine.  This time, he was mortally wounded.  Using his final strength to move the second rescued man to safety, Pfc. Martini gallantly gave his life defending his fellow Marines.

Afghanistan. Operating in an enemy-controlled area, Navy Lt. Michael Murphy's team of four was discovered and assaulted by more than 30 Taliban fighters. The ensuing firefight killed one member of Murphy’s team, and wounded the other three.  The mountainous terrain was making it impossible to call for support, so Murphy fought his way to an unsheltered position where he could transmit a call. Exposed to direct enemy fire, Murphy was mortally wounded.  But he fought on, reporting his coordinates to headquarters and requesting immediate support for his team.  He continued to engage the enemy until he finally gave his life, having saved his comrades.

There are no words that can truly commemorate the heroism of these men.  But one voice, in my opinion, comes closer than any other. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln had this to say about the men who had fought and died at the battle of Gettysburg:

“We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. 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 -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Almost 150 years later, the words of Lincoln still resonate. But it doesn’t take being Commander-in-Chief to honor the fallen. This Memorial Day, I hope you add your own words of remembrance for the brave men and women that have heroically served this nation, and perished on the battlefield.  It is the duty of every American to ensure that they are never forgotten.

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