Pause and remember veterans on Memorial Day

As Published In: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

This Memorial Day weekend, Iowans will gather at backyard barbecues with friends and family, and celebrate the beginning of summer. It is important that we do so, because one of the ways we sustain the American dream is by living it. Equally important, however, is that we take the time to recognize the weekend’s intended purpose – to commemorate servicemembers and families who have sacrificed their lives, or their loved ones, in defense of our freedom.

Since the mid-19th century, Iowa’s sons, daughters, neighbors and friends have donned our country’s uniform and traveled to far-away places to fight in support of American interests, sometimes never to return. They have served with distinction as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen in each of our nation’s conflicts, from the Civil War to the War on Terror. Stories of Iowan bravery, selflessness, and heroism are interwoven throughout America’s military history.

During World War II, the five “Fighting Sullivans,” brothers from Waterloo, fought bravely at Guadalcanal only to be killed tragically after their ship was struck by a torpedo near the Solomon Islands. Today, the Iowa Veteran’s Museum bears their name, as does an operational U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer.

In Korea, Army Sergeant First Class, Junior D. Edwards, from Indianola, distinguished himself for “intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty” by three-times charging an enemy machine gun firing at his platoon. On the third charge, he silenced the gun with grenades, saving his fellow soldiers, but suffered mortal wounds himself. For his actions, he posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

While flying a B-57 bomber on a mission over Laos during the Vietnam War, Air Force Colonel Donald E. Paxton of Cedar Rapids, was shot down. He was missing in action for four years and presumed dead in 1973. Colonel Paxton’s remains were not returned to the United States until 2000.  He now rests in Arlington National Cemetery.

These stories remind us of the sacrifices Iowans have made in foreign lands for more than a century to help pave the way for peace and prosperity here at home. Still, our world remains a dangerous place. An aggressive Russia, expanding China, nuclear North Korea, nefarious Iran, and relentless terror networks continue to threaten global stability. In President Ronald Reagan’s words, “I don't have to tell you how fragile this precious gift of freedom is. Every time we hear, watch, or read the news, we are reminded that liberty is a rare commodity in this world.” 

Another rare commodity is gallantry. Yet, generations of Iowans continue to put their countrymen’s lives ahead of their own in order to preserve that gift of freedom. As Army PFC, Katie Soenksen, observed, “Being deployed is one of the hardest things to do. But being here makes me realize how good we have it in America.” Katie, a Soldier from Davenport, was just 19-years old when she was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan 10 years ago this month.

Every servicemember lost leaves behind a grieving parent, child, sibling, spouse, or friend.  These family members never forget. Neither do the uniformed comrades who served alongside the fallen. It is military tradition to set a “missing man” table at formal events. The table setting is symbolic – a single red rose signifying bloodshed, a slice of lemon for the bitter fate of the missing, salt sprinkled on the bread plate representative of families’ tears, and a single empty chair for those who cannot join. We do this in remembrance of the price others have paid so that we may live in their stead.

So on this Memorial Day weekend, I hope you will enjoy spending time with loved ones. But, also take a pause. Remember those who gave their lives and remember their families. We can all be thankful for their sacrifices and grateful for the freedom and the future they have provided us.

Click here to read the column as it appears in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.