What “the Fallen” Really Means

What “the Fallen” Really Means

We hear it every year:  Memorial Day is for remembering the fallen.  This is a concept that we know and hold sacred.  Certainly we remember that they are brothers and sisters, fathers and sons and mothers and daughters.  We have all seen the photos of fatherless children and resolute wives, the flag-covered caskets and the pure white headstones with the stark black writing.  We visit their graves and we plant our flags, and even shed tears for them, but the entire idea of “the fallen” is an abstract concept to so many who have not fired a shot in combat.

The very word “fallen” implies a certain sterility, almost a glossing over of what their deaths encompassed, doesn’t it?   But they did not just fall.  They did not lie down on the battlefield, quietly going into an eternal sleep.  They died fighting, with their very hearts, with every fiber of their being.  Their deaths were not sterile, they were not beautiful, peaceful or even dignified.

They died in the arms of their friends, and they died alone.  They died calling for their wives, their mothers, clutching photos of people they would never see again.  They screamed in agony and terror…or they were silent, slipping away like their blood soaking into the ground beneath them.   They tried to hang on for minutes, for hours, for days…or they were gone in a half a second.  Just gone.

Some of them died in pieces.

They died in places we have never been, on battlefield operating tables under the hands of another kind of hero.  In fields and jungles, and on remote islands whose names some have already forgotten, the blood of American fighting men has spilled for over two hundred years.

These deaths were horrifying in ways that most of us cannot even fathom, but this is not why we remember them.

We remember them because they made a choice.

They chose to wipe the vomit from their mouths, get out of the landing craft and swim, never making it to the beach.

They made a choice to stab and fight their way up the side of Iwo Jima when they were out of ammunition and food.

They made that split-second decision to run into a Fallujah street to drag their wounded buddy to safety—and never made it back.

They chose to climb into aircraft and fly through fire, or jump from that aircraft into pitch black darkness, never to be seen again.

They stood on a hangman’s platform with their head held high and loudly declared that they wished they could give their lives for this nation more than just once.

They made a choice to jump on a grenade, and to stand at checkpoints staring down a car loaded with bombs.  They chose not to move, so their brothers and sisters would be safe.

Over and over…they faced what they knew could be the end of their life, knowing in that second there would be no more kisses from their little girl, no more hugs from their wives.  No more sunsets, no more throwing the ball with their dog, no more of anything their life had held before.  Knowing what would come, they still chose to stand in the way and not move.

We remember them not just because of their deaths, but because of their choice.  They were not perfect; they had faults and problems just like us.  They were not gods or saints—far from it.  But in that moment of truth, faced with horrors that no one should ever know, they chose to rise, to be something more than most of us will ever be.  There are no thanks fervent enough, no repayment that could possibly make the scales even again, because these men will never come back.

Our honored dead are just that—everything that our nation means to us. Through their choice, for just a little longer they secured a way of life that they themselves will never know again.  They are the best of us, the kind of warriors that embody America and the ideals that we hold so dear.  Their absence is not just a loss to their family and their brothers-in-arms, but to us all; our nation continues to exist because of their sacrifice, and yet we are less for their passing…whether we knew them or not.

Those who have given their lives…they are not just the fallen.  They are the glory of our countrymen.

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