Memorial Day: Remembering those who have fallen

Memorial Day is one of the most significant days for U.S. service members and their families. It is a day set aside for commemorating those who have died in military service to their country. Once known as Decoration Day, the federal holiday was created in the aftermath of the American Civil War to decorate the graves of the war dead.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope we can all take a break from the worries about our own challenges and remember those who gave their lives to protect this nation. As we have watched first responders and medical workers among us on the frontlines of fighting the coronavirus, perhaps the pandemic gives civilians a greater sense of the service and sacrifice that our military personnel have faced since the founding of our country.

Imagine serving in the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. You would be thousands of miles from your loved ones. You would be in a military unit of which you have little personal or political control. You would be fighting day after day, and what you do the day after that is not yours to decide. You are essentially government property, a G.I.: Government Issue. And, at any time, you could be ordered into harm’s way.

War is complex. Few people—even the most brilliant generals—fully comprehend the precise realities of what troops are ordered into. Yet, millions of American servicemen and women have bravely and courageously served. In the process, many have lost their lives, broadening the impact of their own sacrifices onto the lives of their families and friends. Consider the loss: from the beginning of the American Revolution through the global War on Terror, more than 1.1 million Americans have died defending the United States. As he dedicated the cemetery at Gettysburg, President Lincoln honored the Civil War soldiers for their ultimate sacrifice and that they “gave the last full measure of devotion.”

Each of those people has a story—most often those stories are filled with both inspiration and heartbreak. I am about finished with a book titled Alone at Dawn: Medal of Honor Recipient John Chapman and the Untold Story of the World’s Deadliest Special Operations by Dan Schilling and Lori Longfritz.

It is the New York Times bestselling true account of John Chapman, Medal of Honor recipient and Special Ops Combat Controller, and his heroic one-man stand during the Afghan War, as he sacrificed his life to save the lives of twenty-three comrades-in-arms.

Chapman’s citation reads:

Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman

“Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism as an Air Force Special Tactics Combat Controller, attached to a Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) Team conducting reconnaissance operations in Takur Ghar, Afghanistan, on March 4, 2002. During insertion, the team’s helicopter was ambushed causing a teammate to fall into an entrenched group of enemy combatants below. Sergeant Chapman and the team voluntarily reinserted onto the snow-capped mountain, into the heart of a known enemy stronghold to rescue one of their own. Without regard for his own safety, Sergeant Chapman immediately engaged, moving in the direction of the closest enemy position despite coming under heavy fire from multiple directions. He fearlessly charged an enemy bunker, up a steep incline in thigh-deep snow and into hostile fire, directly engaging the enemy. Upon reaching the bunker, Sergeant Chapman assaulted and cleared the position, killing all enemy occupants. With complete disregard for his own life, Sergeant Chapman deliberately moved from cover only 12 meters from the enemy and exposed himself once again to attack a second bunker, from which an emplaced machine gun was firing on his team. During this assault from an exposed position directly in the line of intense fire, Sergeant Chapman was struck and injured by enemy fire. Despite severe, mortal wounds, he continued to fight relentlessly, sustaining a violent engagement with multiple enemy personnel before making the ultimate sacrifice. By his heroic actions and extraordinary valor, sacrificing his life for the lives of his teammates, Technical Sergeant Chapman upheld the highest traditions of military service and reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”

There are so many stories of individuals who have given their lives for our freedom. I urge you to do a little research or grab a book and read. Learn about someone who made the ultimate sacrifice for you. A good starting place is the Center for American War Letters Archive housed at Chapman University. See what you can learn from their experiences and their sense of duty. And this Memorial Day, tend to the duty that belongs to each of us to honor and remember our U.S. service members.