In Iraq, where new sectarian violence has flared recently, 4,400 American military men and women had died as of last Friday since the war began. In Afghanistan where a new surge is under way, American deaths reached 1,076, bringing the total in both wars to 5,476. The number of wounded totals nearly 38,000 - of whom 20,555 returned to duty within 72 hours.
Yet even on Memorial Day, the great sacrifice for freedom takes second place to mundane holiday activities, says Paul Rieckhoff, Iraq veteran and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. In a posting on the IAVA website, he writes: "For veterans, there is no day of the year when the civilian-military divide feels greater. On Memorial Day, it feels like we are citizens of two different countries."
The reason: "This holiday should be a solemn day of remembrance for the more than one million American service members of all generations who have given their lives in defense of our country ... But unfortunately, the significance of the day is often lost under the coolers and beach blankets in the truck of the car."
Rieckhoff said members of his organization and their families were heading to Washington to join Vice President Biden and other veterans groups in the annual wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery. And Rieckhoff will visit the graves of two men with whom he served in Iraq.
"Arlington Cemetery is a place of tremendous symbolism," the veteran writes. "On Monday, Arlington is where the eyes of our nation will be focused. But on this immensely important day, President Obama and his family will not be there to stand with us. And that is unfortunate. As our commander in chief, it is the President's duty to deliver our most important message in the most powerful way and to always lead by example."
Rieckhoff went on: "We can honor the fallen by supporting the living. I hope this Memorial Day marks the start of unparalleled support for those returning from war. Veterans don't need more empty political talk, they need real support and real action."
He's right. Let us honor the fallen by helping our veterans. There are many organizations, including IAVA, that can put our contributions to good use.
And let us never forget, as Ronald Reagan said, "Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation."
On this Memorial Day, let us take the time to remember those who have died for freedom and give a prayer of thanks for them and their sacrifice.
And, as Lincoln exhorted, let us "be dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion."