Mike Bellah

Memorial Day 2003: 
An Apology and a Tribute

Note: I was asked to speak at a Memorial Day service at Dreamland Cemetery near Canyon, Texas on May 26, 2003. Here are my notes.

I wanted to learn more about Memorial Day this week so I asked my friend John Lemons—the Superintendent of Schools at Bushland [Texas]—if he would have his elementary students explain it to me—without prompts. They did and I've brought some samples. Most are 1st graders.

First are those who are not sure what it is:
I know that banks are closed and I don't know why.—Kyle

Memorial Day is when people change the flowers at the cemetery. I do not know why they change the flowers at the cemetery.—Colter

I think Memorial Day is a day that you remember when you're born.— Nate

Memorial Day is when Abraham Lincoln died.—Rachel

What is Memorial Day? I am going to the water park.—Catherine

Memorial Day is Mothers' Day.—Shyla

Memorial Day is Mr. Lemons birthday.—Hailee

Kevin—It is a day for parents to get rest.

Whitney—Memorial Day is my favorite day except for Valentine's Day. I think every day should be either Valentine's Day or Memorial Day.

Brittany—You don't have school that day because there is a parade somewhere.

Alicia—a day when we sing the star spagle (sic) song.

My teacher told me to write a story about Memorial Day and I have no clue what it is about.—Tanner

Then, there is the profound:
There are about 2,000 men and women that died for our freedom and my grandfather was in the war; he didn't just fight for me, my dad, my mom, my brothers, and my Aunt Christina, but he fought for his country and for our freedom and now there is Memorial Day.—Sarah

Memorial Day is a thank you note to our military. Like thank you for saving out country and fighting in the war.—Emily

The speech—To our Nation's War Dead: An Apology and a Tribute

Thank you for coming. Thank you for having me. I am honored to speak at such a sacred time—honored because of the value of this occasion, a worthy occasion because of the worthiness of those we honor.

I am also humbled to be here. I would not have chosen me to speak today. My parents, grandparents, my church, teachers, Boy Scout leaders instilled in me a love and duty to country. Yet it's a love that for most of my adult life has gone largely unexpressed. And I am not alone—For many in the Baby Boom generation, Memorial Day has been more about vacationing than remembering. Please note; I said "many" not "any." Some baby boomers, like Charles Starnes [Captain Charles Starnes, a childhood friend who has since captained a nuclear sub], have voiced their love of country consistently through their adult years. Yet sadly, they have been the exception not the rule. 

So today I want to speak on behalf of my peers in a piece I'm directing to the nation's war dead. I've titled it "An Apology and a Tribute."

For many in my generation, who were born after WW II, we have taken you for granted. Because of your sacrifice we were raised in an era of unprecedented prosperity and peace. The freedom you gave us allowed us great opportunity—to attend colleges (in record numbers), universities and trade schools—opportunities that gave us the ability to pursue careers of our choosing, to live in places of our choosing, to embrace the religious faith and values of our choosing, to raise families and pursue dreams of our choosing. 

You did this for us and more. You allowed us to give our children the gifts you gave to us. Because of you, we have seen them given the great American opportunity, the freedom to pursue the American dream, the blessings of living in the land of the free.

We have received these great gifts, bought with your blood, and for the most part, my generation has been apathetic and unappreciative. We have gone to the lake or the beach on Memorial Day, not the cemetery; we have heard the laughter of our children; we have not often heard the cries of our brave soldier forebears. We have pursued and celebrated the great American dream; we have not thought as much of the great American sacrifice, the sacrifice you gave, the blood you spilt for us, the patriotic act Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion."

But then on September 11, 2001, war came to our land. We were attacked on our own soil; the lives of contemporary Americans—our neighbors, friends, family—were taken by the ideological ancestors of the same ruthless enemies of freedom whom you defeated years ago.

It was a high price to pay, but our eyes have been opened. We have seen what you always knew, that freedom has a price, that those who enjoy the fruit of democracy must sow its seeds—seeds like truth, integrity, love for one's neighbor—seeds that must often be watered with hard work, self-sacrifice, vigilant prayers, and, yes, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice—one's own life, freely given in fighting the relentless enemies of freedom, enemies who cannot be ignored or appeased, enemies who must be defeated, enemies who will be defeated because America has always been—in the words of our "star spangled song," words recently echoed by President George W. Bush—America has always been not only the land of the free but the home of the brave.

So today, on behalf of my generation, I offer a belated tribute—a tribute not only to the war dead of the 1700's and 1800's, not even is it only to those brave American soldiers who died in the wars of the 1900's. My tribute today includes the American men and women who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. I also include members of the New York City Police and Fire Departments, and the brave soldiers who died at the Pentagon, and those heroic Americans, just ordinary citizens on a transcontinental flight, who, because of their heroism, saved lives in our nation’s capitol while losing their own in a Pennsylvania field. 

Your bravery and sacrifice have purchased our freedom, and not only ours, but the freedom of hopeless and oppressed peoples living in faraway countries, who (some only recently) have learned firsthand what Americans are really like, not evil infidels who want to culturally subjugate and economically exploit foreigners, but lovers of peace and freedom who know that, as Martin Luther King once said, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  We might add in today's world "slavery anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere" or "violent intolerance anywhere is a threat to peaceful tolerance everywhere." So today, we honor you who have brought peace and justice, not only to us, but to freedom-seeking people everywhere. 

So how do we best pay tribute to you? I think Lincoln knew the answer to the question, when in that brief speech he wrote on the back of an envelope in route to a cemetery filled with thousands of fresh graves in the little Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, he said the following: "We cannot dedicate. . .we cannot consecrate. . . we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. . . .  "

"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." 

This was Lincoln's challenge in 1863. And it's our challenge in 2003. You see our tribute to our nation's war dead (for my generation or for yours) should not end at this cemetery on this Memorial Day. Rather it continues as we live the freedoms these brave Americans won for us—and this we will do everyday and in every place as we remember and follow their sacrificial examples.

May God continue to bless their memory; may God bless you, and may God bless America. Thank you. 

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