05/25/2014 08:30 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2014

Honoring Our Heroes On Memorial Day

We Americans have a debt, and the next payment is due this Memorial Day.

This is not a debt that can be paid by money, but can be made by you and me simply attending the Memorial Day services at any one of several locations here in New York City. We will be paying our respects to the thousands of men and women who, down through the ages, have given their lives, "their last full measure of devotion," so that we Americans might breathe the fresh air of freedom.

Memorial Day was instituted following the Civil War, a century and a half ago, when a hundreds of thousands of young men of both armies died on the battlefields.

On May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, a few months after the Civil War ended, about 10,000 Black Americans, recently freed from slavery, held a memorial service of singular poignancy. They gathered to honor the men of the Union Army who died there in Charleston, in the war that had brought Black people their freedom.

Then, throughout the nation, local memorial services, usually in May, became more and more frequent. By the 20th century, Memorial Day, sometimes called Decoration Day, became an annual national observance.

Most of those whom we honor on Memorial Day died young. They never had the chance to raise a family, build a career, attend the weddings of their children, or be honored in old age.

I have never had doubts about the courage of the young men and women we sent overseas wearing the uniform. I have never had doubts about the pain caused to those in the military as they lay dying in foreign fields. I have never had doubts about the pain caused to their families as they were informed of their loss.

Their lives had a sharp focus -- duty. Duty to their country. And if duty called upon them to risk all that life had to offer, to risk life itself, they accepted that. And they gave their lives.

That is why it is important for each of us to attend a least one of the many Memorial Day services held in New York this year.

In order to express our gratitude to those who lost their lives, we are not asked to risk our lives. We are merely asked to take a few moments out of our busy day, once a year, to stand in silent thanks to our martyred brothers and sisters. The fallen will not see us in a physical sense. But in a spiritual sense they will know we are there. And their children will see us, and their widows, and their mothers. And perhaps the bereaved will gain a sense of purpose to their loss.

We owe it to them.