PHOENIXVILLE - Amid the hustle of the holiday weekend, most Americans will pause to remember those who sacrificed so much to preserve our quality of life in a nation that has been the symbol of liberty throughout the world.
Each year, I reflect on the actions of those heroes who put the needs of our people above personal safety. Since each of us had different experiences, I pray that you will take time to do the same and share them with the younger generation.
This is so important because I believe that freedom and sacrifice are forever linked in both our personal and national destinies. Certainly those of you who served our country in the military are well aware of the close connection between the two. Other readers who have lost loved ones during our wars are even more aware of the ultimate sacrifice made by these heroes. Indeed freedom isn't free! In fact, each generation is called up to keep the lamp of freedom burning brightly during his or her time on earth. Thomas Paine used his eloquence during the American Revolution to consider the failure of our citizens to join the fight for liberty. He wrote, "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; 'tis dearness only that gives everything its value."
Abraham Lincoln often spoke of the sacrifices of the Grand Army of the Republic during the Civil War. Following that bloody conflict to end slavery and keep our nation unified, Lincoln wrote a letter to a Mrs. Bixby who lost two sons in the conflict. He stated, "I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom." (November, 1864)
Undoubtedly, Lincoln himself was also a war casualty sacrificed on that same altar by those who find slavery of any kind preferable to personal responsibility and commitment to a just cause.
Shortly after the Civil War, Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Union Army issued a general order designating May 30, 1868, "For the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion."
It was many years later that this humble beginning celebrated in the North as Decoration Day found its way into the southern states. It was up to each state to recognize individual holidays and Rhode Island was the first to make the day official in 1874. During the 20th-century wars, the holiday became known as Memorial Day to honor all those who perished in the service of their country.
Listing the number of casualties for each conflict tends to minimize the individual valor of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. During this past week, Phoenixville Area High School honored 1st Lt. David Bernstein who was killed in Iraq by enemy action in Oct., 2003. He became the first graduate to be listed on the PAHS newly created Wall of Fame. In his honor a scholarship will be presented each year to future valedictorians.
Thus the distant war in Iraq becomes very close and personal to the Phoenixville community. My thoughts returned to the first casualty of the Vietnam War that touched our high school in Warminster, Bucks County, in the late 60s. Lt. Bob Smith was a helicopter pilot who was shot down attempting to rescue isolated troops. I had not only known him as a student but had given him tennis lessons. Much like the current conflict, the Vietnam war had mixed reviews in our community. But Bob was one of our kids. As the principal, I helped the faculty organize a fund-raising effort to allow us to purchase hundreds of books for our library. The emphasis was on American history and our students were honored by the Freedoms Foundation during the presentation ceremony. Each volume contained an insert with Bob's picture and a tribute to his life. Suddenly freedom and sacrifice became more real to these once children of the 60s who are now nearly the age of senior citizens.
During the next week, America will be reminded of the 60th anniversary of D-Day and the loss of life that resulted from the invasion of Hitler's fortress Europe. Programs will emphasize the things that we did wrong in our landing on Omaha beach. I have already watched two versions. Hindsight six decades later creates instant wisdom. However, that generation was sacrificed partly because of selfish decisions made by leaders following World War I.
Regardless of the outcome of the present Middle East mess, this generation must never relax its vigilance in a world filled with terrorists both at home and abroad. The question that might be answered on Memorial Day 2020, "Will we be fighting on our own soil if we fail to act to protect the liberty that past generations died to give us?"
Those formerly and now in our armed services know that only through discipline and sacrifice may true freedom be achieved.