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Honoring Fallen Heroes

SAF/PA 2006 Air Force Public Affairs

Memorial Day, 2006

Today we pause to remember all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation, the fallen warriors who never came home to their families and friends. Liberty is a precious gift whose benefits we all enjoy every day, but too often we give little thought to the price paid for it. Memorial Day is the one day each year on which we reflect on the tremendous sacrifices made by our fellow countrymen. 

We are a nation and an Air Force at war. Our Airmen have been engaged in combat operations for more than 15 years, from the Persian Gulf War, through the patrols over the 'No Fly Zone' to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sadly, more than 2,300 young men and women have given their lives in the cause of freedom. We mourn the loss of each member of our military family. 

This day of remembrance was first observed to mark the terrible losses of the Civil War in the 1860s. More than 620,000 Americans fell on our own soil, giving "the last full measure of devotion," in President Abraham Lincoln's memorable phrase. 

Our nation survived that bloody civil war, and went on to become a beacon of hope for millions of people around the world. 

The fruits of their labors can be seen throughout the world. Former World War II adversaries like Germany, Italy and Japan are now our allies - first terribly punished by our aerial might but later sustained and even protected from the air. Dozens of countries in Eastern Europe, once in the grip of Soviet domination throughout the Cold War, are now emerging as democracies in their own right. Many of them are playing a key role in helping us win the global war on terrorism by granting overflight and basing rights. The technology of war has changed dramatically since the American Civil War, but the risks and suffering of war have not. For brave Americans who bear the risk, no victory is free from sorrow. This nation fights proudly, but we know the cost as we see the, the flag-draped coffins now carried home by our C-17s that carry the remains of fallen heroes. 

President Bush has said, "It is not in our nature to seek out wars and conflicts. But whenever they have come, when adversaries have left us no alternative, American men and women have stood ready to take the risks and pay the ultimate price." 

Some of America's best and brightest have given their lives on the blood-soaked beaches of Normandy, in the jungles of the South Pacific, and over the skies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. They have fought and fallen on the icy slopes of the Korean Peninsula and the rice paddies of Vietnam. And they've fought in the deadly skies south of Korea's Yalu River and in Vietnam's Red River Valley. More recently, they have fought and died in the mountains and caves of Afghanistan, and in the deadly streets of Iraq. 

Only those who have seen the horrors of war firsthand can ever truly know what these soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines went through in their final moments. Perhaps they were charging out of a landing craft onto Omaha Beach, with no place to hide and no chance of retreat. Or maybe they were in a burning aircraft, plunging to earth -- trying desperately to escape a fiery death. Perhaps they were in a convoy racing through the dusty streets of Baghdad when a roadside bomb ripped through their vehicle. 

Each of them knew what their duty was, but surely each of them also dreamed of going home to the people they loved and the life they cherished. Each of them had families waiting eagerly to see them again. We know that they were forced to leave their hopes and dreams behind when they went off to war. They parted with them forever when they died. 
President Ronald Reagan once said, "Most of those who died in defense of our country were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives - the one they were living, and the one they would have lived. They gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers.... They gave up everything for their country, for us. All we can do is remember." 

One of those young men was Capt. Lance Sijan ["Sigh-john"]. In early November 1967, Sijan was on his 53rd combat mission, in an F-4 Phantom over Laos. Almost immediately after dropping his bombs, Sijan's plane was engulfed in flames. Sijan ejected, but lost consciousness from severe head injuries, a crushed right hand, and a compound fracture to his leg. Despite these injuries, he managed to evade North Vietnamese troops for 45 days. 

When he was finally captured, Sijan was little more than a skeleton, covered by flesh rubbed raw from his desperate evasion ordeal. His North Vietnamese captors offered him no medical treatment. Instead, they severely beat him, because he steadfastly refused to give them any military information. Despite his injuries, he managed to escape, though only for a short time. After being recaptured, Sijan developed pneumonia, but continued his escape attempts. He died of his injuries on Jan. 22, 1968, more than two months after his plane went down. Sijan was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his valiant resistance in the face of incredible pain and suffering. 

There are many stories like Lance Sijan's in the annals of military history. Some of these stories are well known; others are known only to those who served along side them. But all of them offer eloquent testimony to the courage, professionalism, and the sheer determination with which our men and women carry out their duties. A few years ago, many wondered whether today's young people had "the right stuff," the fortitude to take on the world's toughest challenges. Well, we found out on that terrible morning in September 2001.Our nation was attacked by shadowy terrorists who killed 3,000 innocent men, women and children. Our men and women in uniform answered the call in the finest tradition of "the Greatest Generation," as Tom Brokaw called them. Nearly five years later, members of the "Latest Generation" remain engaged in the Global War on Terror, doing the tough jobs freedom requires. 

The war on terrorism has produced a whole new set of heroes, men like TSgt John Chapman, a special operations combat controller from Pope AFB, North Carolina. After the attacks of 9-11, America struck back at the terrorists who planned the attack from their strongholds in Afghanistan. TSgt Chapman guided precision air strikes on Taliban strongholds in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan. During some of the fiercest fighting of Operation Anaconda, TSgt Chapman volunteered to help rescue a fallen comrade. Sadly, he lost his own life in the rescue effort. His sacrifice reminds us again that defending freedom exacts a terrible toll. 

But fear of casualties must not dissuade us from doing what needs to be done, rooting out terrorist cells wherever they hide. In fact, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur said, "It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it." That is especially true of the global war on terrorism, where we are ultimately fighting for our democratic values and way of life. The task will not be an easy one, nor will it be achieved in a matter of months, or even years. But it must be done. 

Over the past three years, the news from Iraq has been especially difficult, with each grim milestone a reminder of the terrible cost of bringing freedom to this part of the world. More than 2,400 [as of 30 April] American servicemen and women have lost their lives in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. This hits particularly hard because as you know, Airmen are our Air Force's most precious resource in this war on terrorism. 

Vice President Cheney said, "Our nation grieves for the brave men and women whose lives have ended in freedom's cause. No one can take away the sorrow that comes to the families of the fallen. We can only say ... that these Americans served in a noble and a necessary cause, and their sacrifice has made our nation and the world more secure. We will honor their memory forever." 
Every life lost is a tragedy. It is a loss to our military, to our nation, and to the families who grieve. Every Memorial Day, we struggle to understand the meaning of such sacrifice and loss. And it always seems so much more painful than words alone can convey. All we can do is remember the sacrifices made for us and for our freedom. 

We can only hope that the anguish of the families of these fallen heroes is tempered by the knowledge that their loved ones died in a noble cause - liberating millions of people from a brutal regime and protecting still more millions from further harm and intimidation. President Bush has assured all Americans that these men and women have not died in vain. He vowed, "We will finish the work of the fallen." 

That sentiment is echoed on the front lines of Iraq. One soldier, who had lost several friends while serving there, said he thought we needed to stay and finish the job. "If we just called it quits, it'd mean they died for nothing," he said. 

We owe it to them to complete the mission for which they gave their lives -- to bring freedom and democracy to a troubled region of the world. In this war on terror, as in all previous wars, American warriors come not as conquerors, but as liberators. Their final act on this Earth was fighting the forces of evil to bring liberty to an oppressed nation. 

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a career military man turned statesman, may have said it best: "We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years ... and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in." 

As you walk through the rows of gleaming white headstones, look at the names and the dates inscribed on them. Behind each name is a story of grief and loss that came to a family, a child, a town. Eventually, the day will come when no one is left behind who knew the story behind that headstone. But America will never forget what they did for this nation. 

Today we honor all those who left us too soon, whose lives were cut short on distant battlefields. And so, as you celebrate this Memorial Day with family and friends, I urge you to take a moment to reflect on those who sacrificed their lives so we can enjoy a beautiful day like today. This "Moment of Remembrance" is something each of us can do to keep their memory alive in our hearts. Surely we owe them nothing less than to remember, and to give thanks for all they have done on our behalf. On behalf of a grateful nation, we salute them, and pledge that we will never forget. Thank you.