Memorial Day is our most solemn national holiday. It is a unique time for both celebration and poignant remembrances. We celebrate our freedom and way of life through backyard barbeques, ballgames, and beach outings. But, we also pause to remember our fallen in ceremonies mourning the loss of those who gave their lives so that we might live ours in peace and freedom.
At its core, the eloquence of Memorial Day speaks of personal sacrifice for a greater, common good. It resonates in the stories of ordinary Americans, who fought and died, drawing on extraordinary inner strength and determination to preserve our nation. They did so out of an abiding sense of duty and immense personal courage.
I have a friend named Ruth Stonesifer. Ruth is one of the many Gold Star Mothers who have given their children in service to our nation. They and their families are all wonderful examples of strength, courage, and generosity.
Ruth and I first met by telephone in late October 2001, when I was then serving as the Army Chief of Staff. Her son Kris had just been killed in Afghanistan, one of two Army Rangers—our first casualties in a war that is still being fought today by our magnificent men and women in uniform. It was a phone call no parent ever wants to receive, and that I did not ever wish to make.
At a time of deepest grief, when my call was an intrusion into their anguish, mothers and fathers like Ruth Stonesifer shared their hearts with me. They helped me through my own sorrow. And they made me even more proud of their children. Often, I was the one who was consoled during those phone calls.
I do not know what would have happened if that first phone call to Ruth had not gone well. But she was so strong, so generous, and so comforting that I went on to reach out to as many families of the fallen as I could during my tenure as chief—to try to express the inexpressible; to try to assuage the unbearable; and to say “Thank You” on behalf of a grateful nation, when no measure of gratitude could ever fill the void left by the loss of a child.
Memorial Day is a time for remembrance, reflection, and respect—for honoring the men and women who gave their lives serving the United States of America. We pay homage to their willingness to sacrifice themselves for love of country.
Let us never forget Ruth and Kris Stonesifer—or the countless others who have given so much in service to our nation. Let us strive to honor the memory of the fallen by living out, in our everyday lives, the principles, ideals, and values for which these Americans—forever young, forever brave, forever loved—gave their lives.
Eric K. Shinseki