The story that follows is personal, but represents just one tiny thread in the fabric of freedom in America. I dedicate it to each and every service man and woman, who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country and I honor those family members who endured the loss.
It was just a routine morning for another military mom. She kissed her handsome Naval officer husband goodbye, as he left for his duty station, and then went about planning her day’s household duties and errands, and caring for her two young boys, ages one and three.
It was just a normal day, that is, until late afternoon, when the Navy Chaplain and two officers in full dress uniform appeared at the door. It was March 28th, 1945. My mother, brother and I would learn the meaning of Memorial Day first hand.
Just ten days earlier Lt. Commander Donald E. Smith, USN, had reported for duty as a Squadron Commander at Oceana Naval Air Station, Virginia, after having served four years at war, as a naval aviator in the North Atlantic and South Pacific. The war was winding down and my dad was excited about this well deserved “shore duty” with his wife, Marge, and two young boys. While flying over the Chesapeake Bay, his aircraft malfunctioned and he and three Navy colleagues lost their lives when his plane dove straight into the waters of the Bay.
My brother and I would know the pain of not having a dad at our ballgames and graduations. We would endure the decades of alcoholism and loneliness of our grieving mom, who never recovered from her loss. However, we would also learn to appreciate and respect the unselfish sacrifice and patriotism of both of our parents. We would grow up to understand that our family was one small piece of fabric in the cloth of freedom that cloaks America. Like thousands of military families before us, and thousands after us, we would learn that there is a high price to be paid for freedom. We were not alone in our suffering and loss.
On Memorial Day we pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform and their families, who paid for our freedom with their blood and tears for 235 years, from 1776 to Iraq and Afghanistan. If it ever gets to the point that we do not revere, honor and recognize those patriots, America will not survive. On this Memorial Day I hope we can all tune out the picnics, cell phones, computers and mundane activities of the day for just a few minutes, then pause and say, “thank you,” for all they have done for their posterity and their country.
In June of 1995 I had the privilege of attending the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. I went as a United States Senator and member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. Prior to arriving in Normandy we stopped at Anzio, Italy where Senator Bob Dole had been wounded in 1944, as the allies began their Mediterranean advance to remove the German armies from Southern Europe. Dole lost the use of an arm, and many friends, in the mountains of Italy. While walking among the graves at the U.S. cemetery in Anzio, my wife, Mary Jo, saw the grave of a young man who had been killed on 29 May, 1944, the very day she was born. It was an emotional moment, when she realized that young soldier had sacrificed his life, so that she could be born in freedom. Ironically, a continent away and at about the same time in history, Mary Jo’s dad, Army Radioman, George D. Hutchinson, along with thousands of other American soldiers, was preparing to invade Japan. Then President Truman ordered the bomb to be dropped on Japan, and her dad came home. Many would die so that others could live. There is no rhyme or reason. It is the way of war.
A few days after Anzio, we stood with the survivors among the American graves on the cliffs of Normandy. Those who died, those who survived and the posterity who benefited from this courageous and unselfish action were all together on the battlefield. There were chills and there were tears, but mostly there was gratitude. It was a high honor and a privilege just to be on that sacred ground. I now understand why Lincoln said at the commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg that the world “can never forget what they did here.”
The real meaning of duty, patriotism, sacrifice and the cost of freedom were never clearer to me than on a warm spring day at Arlington National Cemetery in May of 1993. After 48 years, mom was laid to rest with the love of her life. Emotions were very hard to control. I was sad, but I was so proud. The words of the Buck Owens song were so appropriate: “Together again. The tears have stopped falling. The long lonely nights have come to an end. Nothing else matters now. We’re together again.”
Standing at the gravesite after the ceremony, it may have appeared that I was alone. I was not. I stood there with hundreds of thousands of military personnel and their families who have sacrificed and endured since the losses at Concord Bridge. I looked at the acres and acres of tombstones across the Arlington landscape. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from every war and conflict in American history, all lying together. I looked up the hill about a hundred yards from the grave of my parents and saw the Lee Mansion and the gravesite of Admiral Bull Halsey, whom my dad was so proud to serve under. I raised my head to see the monument to George Washington, and the Jefferson Memorial. Having spent so many years in our nation’s capital, I paused to reflect upon the fact that, less than a mile away, were so many other vivid reminders that freedom was not free. The Iwo Jima Memorial, depicting six brave men, including an American Indian, Ira Hayes, hoisting the U.S. flag atop Mt. Suribachi after Marines won a bloody battle wresting that strategic island from the Japanese. Perhaps most inspirational was the Viet Nam Wall since my brother and I both served in that war. To walk along that wall and see the flowers, Boy Scout badges, religious articles, love letters and even cans of beer that are left there is to give one a vast array of emotions.
If one really wants to understand the meaning of Memorial Day, then a visit to Washington, D.C and the sites that commemorate the sacrifices of our military will make it very clear. Whatever you do to celebrate, please remember to stop and give thanks in your own way. Today is a great day because you woke up free. Their sacrifice made that possible.