A Time For Remembrance

SAF/PA 2005 Air Force Public Affairs

Memorial Day, 2005

For many, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. Across the country, families are getting together for picnics and barbecues, going boating on the lake or playing baseball in the park. Communities are coming together for parades and other festive celebrations. But let's not forget the real reason why this day has been set aside as a national holiday. 

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service to our country. It is the time for us to reconnect with our nation's history and our national values by honoring those who gave their lives for the ideals we cherish. 

This tradition began more than 100 years ago following the end of the Civil War. After that terrible war, family members of the many Soldiers slain in battle would visit the grave sites of their fallen relatives or friends and decorate their graves with flowers. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873, and by 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The tradition continued to change and evolve until 1971, when Memorial Day was declared a national holiday to be held every year on the last Monday of May. 

Since 1775, when the first American Soldiers took up arms to fight for our independence, more than a million American service members have died in wars and conflicts to preserve the freedoms we hold so dear. They helped create the world we live in today, and paved the long road of democracy we continue to walk into the future. So today, we thank those who died to preserve our American way of life. We all owe them our freedom to live, to work and to raise our families. 

Throughout the wars and conflicts this nation has fought, from our Revolutionary War to the Civil War; from the First and Second World Wars to conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and Southwest Asia, each person lost has been important -- cherished by family and friends; missed by comrades-in-arms who stood with that person. Behind every decorated grave today of a fallen Airman or Soldier is a story of grief that came to a spouse, a mother, a child, a family or a town. 

But we're not just here to mourn these heroes, we're here to celebrate them and their sacrifices; their willingness to put service before self has protected the freedoms we enjoy. I encourage you to talk with some of their comrades who served during World War II, Vietnam, Korea or Southwest Asia. Listen to their stories, but realize there are many stories you will never hear. 

The Air Force core values are Integrity First, Service before Self and Excellence in All We Do. Our Airmen who are fighting and dying for the freedoms of the Afghani and Iraqi people have these core values instilled in them. 

The Air Force has a long history of brave men and women. One such brave man was Senior Airman Jason Cunningham who was awarded the Air Force Cross posthumously for his bravery during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan. Airman Cunningham, a pararescueman out of Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, was on a helicopter with other Air Force people and Army Rangers. As the helicopter approached a ridge, it was shot down. As it crashed, the Airmen and Soldiers were being fired on and were surrounded by the enemy. Airman Cunningham pulled the wounded and injured away from the helicopter as best he could. He continued to take fire and was mortally wounded. He knew he was going to die, yet Airman Cunningham continued telling the Rangers how to care for the casualties. 

Airman Cunningham is just one of the many service members -- brave Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen - who died protecting their country and all it stood for. They died defending a way of life ... the well-being of their families, the future of their children, for free choice, moral values and the responsibility we all share in a democratic society. 

President George W. Bush said recently, "Words can only go so far in capturing the grief and sense of loss for the families of those who died in all our wars. For some military families in America and in Europe, the grief is recent, with the losses we have suffered. They can know, however, that the cause is just and, like other generations, these sacrifices have spared many others from tyranny and sorrow." 

Our military men and women have defended America throughout our history with courage and honor. They signed up to fight because they knew they had to; they signed up so someone else didn't have to, so America would always be the great place it is. They did what they knew they had to do, never asking for recognition or fanfare. 

Our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen died to prevent tyranny from spreading to America's shores and taking root. Many took their last breaths in the soggy rice paddies in Vietnam, on the cold, rugged Korean Peninsula or in the hot sun of the Iraqi desert. They've died bringing stability to regions of the world suffering under oppression, bringing a lasting security, enabling reconstruction and preventing the re-emergence of international terrorist organizations. 

Another hero from Operation Anaconda was Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, who was also awarded the Air Force Cross posthumously for his bravery during hostile fire. The helicopter that carried Sergeant Chapman and his team came under heavy machine-gun fire and was directly hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The grenade caused a Navy SEAL team member to fall from the aircraft. The helicopter was severely damaged but made an emergency landing seven kilometers away from the fallen team member. After landing, Sergeant Chapman called in an AC-130 gunship to provide close air support and cover the stranded team before directing the gunship to search for the missing team member. 

Sergeant Chapman volunteered to rescue the missing team member without regard for his own life. He engaged and killed two enemy personnel and continued advancing until encountering a dug-in machine-gun nest. At this time, the rescue team came under enemy fire from three directions. Sergeant Chapman exchanged fire at close range with the enemy until succumbing to multiple wounds. His destruction of the first enemy position and advancement on the second enemy position enabled his team to move to cover and break enemy contact. The team leader credited Sergeant Chapman's aggressive and selfless actions with saving the lives of the entire team. 

We can never repay the selfless heroes such as Sergeant Chapman, but we can say thank you and honor and respect them for their service. They are all heroes. These men and women who came from varying backgrounds and diverse ethnicities, have kept America strong and protected our way of life for over two centuries. Their tradition continues today with the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, where our forces continue to help build roads and bridges, utility systems, schools and hospitals, so these countries can begin to establish their own democratic governments. 

Our forces also provide humanitarian assistance, and any mission has its dangers. During Operation Enduring Freedom, a helicopter from the 41st Rescue Squadron, based at Moody AFB, Ga., crashed, killing all six crew members on board. The aircraft went down on a night mission to evacuate two Afghani children with head injuries. 

And more recently, nine Airmen were killed in an MC-130H Combat Talon II aircraft crash in Albania. The Airmen were supporting a joint training mission with the Albanian military. 

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Air Force launched a massive search and rescue mission for an F-15E Strike Eagle crew who went down on a low-level combat mission near Mosul. A rescue task force of helicopters and A-10s proceeded to the crash site, despite the number of active enemy air defenses in the vicinity. Even KC-135 and KC-10 refueling tankers loitered in the area to sustain operations. But the rescuers never made contact with Capt. Eric Das, pilot, and weapons systems operator, Maj. William Watkins III. They had been killed. A special forces team recovered their bodies and the two were buried in Arlington National Cemetery. 

These stalwarts of our military, unrelenting in battle, unwavering in loyalty, unsurpassed in honor and decency, have made our nation more secure. They've laid down their lives for our freedoms - doing whatever mission was necessary - search and rescue, combat or humanitarian assistance; for a future of peace, prosperity and justice for us all. 

Their sacrifices - along with a thousand others - are strengthening new allies in the war on terror, and bringing hope, stability and progress to a troubled region. And, ultimately will lift a terrible threat from the lives of our children and grandchildren. 

Freedom of this kind is found in precious few countries the world over. When compared to other nations, America always emerges the champion, with the most liberty and the most opportunities. People of every race, ethnicity and background come here, or spend their lives trying to come here, because of what we stand for and the freedoms we guarantee to everyone. 

Today, we remember that at this moment -- as we are enjoying this wonderful day and making plans for the summer -- men and women of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard have served and sacrificed - and are still doing so --around the world. They are admirably contributing to the continued struggle to reach a lasting peace. They deserve the support and gratitude of those of us left behind. 

So please take a few moments, and remember these brave men and women. Remember who they were, what they fought for and what they left behind for us. Remember the values they stood for and remember why they were willing to give up their lives for these United States of America. 

Today at 3 p.m. wherever you are, please pause for the Memorial Day National Moment of Remembrance established by Congress. This Moment of reflection and rededication to give back to our country in memory of our fallen is an act of national unity. You will be demonstrating your gratitude and respect for those who died for our freedom. One Nation, One Moment. 

I am reminded of the very fitting words found on graves and war memorials around the world, "When you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow, we gave our today." We may never fully appreciate all the sacrifices made for us, but let us use our gift of today to honor those who made them.