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Denis McDonough: We must say the names of the heroes who gave all in defense of freedom

29May 2021

Every headstone in cemeteries across our nation and around the globe tells a story.

The letters etched upon those stones are the names of mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, daughters and sons. Far too many lived short lives — fighting and dying for the peace, freedom and opportunities we enjoy as Americans.

Whenever I walk through the sacred grounds of our national cemeteries, I pause and read the names aloud, my way of ensuring I never forget the ultimate sacrifice these patriots gave in defense of freedom.

On Memorial Day, my wish is that all Americans take the time to remember the sacrifices of these heroes by saying their names aloud. Saying the names of these men and women keeps their memory alive — the memory of their service, commitment, dedication and love of country. It reminds their families that we continue to stand with them.

My most humbling career experiences have been the privilege of meeting our men and women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, visiting and seeing firsthand the resilience of those wounded and recovering, and sharing my deep condolences and grief with military families when their loved ones came home in a flag-draped coffin.

They aren’t just names. They are our families and friends, our neighbors and fellow citizens. These men and women have so many stories of bravery and valor to tell.

Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee is the final resting place of four Civil War Medal of Honor recipients, Buffalo Soldiers, and Michelle Witmer, the first woman from the Wisconsin National Guard killed in war in 60 years. She served in Iraq with her sisters, Charity and Rachel.

Army Private David Bennes Barkley is buried in San Antonio. He earned the Medal of Honor in World War I after he volunteered to cross a river to observe enemy positions and drowned on the return trip.

Air Force Lt. Col. Ellison Onizuka, killed in the Challenger space shuttle explosion, is buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

In 2006, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Alfred Hill, who was missing in action for 62 years, finally returned home and was laid to rest at the Fort Sill National Cemetery. He and eight crewmembers were onboard a B-24 bomber that disappeared on a mission during World War II.

Those who read the book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young” (by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway) or saw the movie will recognize the name of Medal of Honor recipient Army Capt. Ed “Too Tall” Freeman, buried in the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery. A helicopter pilot who volunteered to fly food and supplies to soldiers fighting in Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley under heavy enemy fire, Capt. Freeman’s bravery allowed hundreds to return home to their families.

And there’s Jesse LeRoy Brown, who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross — the first Black naval officer to complete the Navy’s basic flight training program and the first Black naval officer killed in the Korean War. He was killed trying to save Marines trapped at the Chosin Reservoir. His body was never recovered, and his family was left without a grave to honor and remember him.

The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial is the final resting place for 7,861 servicemen who died liberating Italy from the Nazis.

Many more heroes from all our wars rest in hallowed grounds around the world.

We can’t lose sight of what Memorial Day means for our nation and families who continue to grieve the loss of a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman.

For these Americans, Memorial Day may not be a day of celebration. It may be a deeply personal and somber day. Remember them in your prayers and recognize that we are free because of their sacrifices.

President Joe Biden told me that my job as VA secretary is to “fight like hell” for veterans. He also said that there is no more sacred duty than to care for our nation’s vets who have given us so much.

As our caring colleagues in the National Cemetery Administration maintain their solemn mission to watch over those no longer with us, we know many more veterans came home with wounds both visible and invisible. My promise is that all of us in VA will selflessly serve those men and women who served and sacrificed so much for all of us.

Today, and always, I remember our fallen heroes and say their names. I ask you to join me in saying their names in honor, reflection and recognition of a grateful nation.

Denis McDonough is secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He grew up in Stillwater, graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville, and was President Barack Obama’s chief of staff. He wrote this column for InsideSources.com.


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Author: Denis McDonough

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