It might be easy to forget amid the sales, the barbecues, and the “beginning of summer hype,” but Memorial Day is the day the U.S. government has officially set aside for every American to take a moment to grieve and mourn for the men and women in all branches of the U.S. military who have lost their lives in service to this great nation.
Sadly, the true reason for the national holiday and three-day weekend is too often forgotten or overlooked by too many Americans, which is why it is good sometimes to be reminded of the ultimate sacrifice that more than a million Americans have made over the decades and centuries to protect our cherished freedoms and way of life.
One such message was recently put forward by a former U.S. Army Ranger turned National Football League player, Alejandro Villaneuva, an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
His spoken-word essay about what Memorial Day means to him was recorded by ESPN and produced in a beautifully touching — even heartbreaking — video that was shared on social media.
“The holiday means different things to different people. For those of us who served, the meaning is pretty obvious,” Villanueva said, as scenes of Arlington National Cemetery were displayed.
“You remember those who were lost, who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
“You remember those who are lost, who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 27, 2019
“I come here to remind myself that I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said, in reference to the venerated military cemetery. “Serving my country was the greatest honor of my life. But not everyone gets to come home to their family and loved ones like I did.
“More than 1.1 million American servicemen and women didn’t get to do that. To me, Memorial Day is about all of them,” he added.
Villanueva noted how the day of remembrance originated in 1868 in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War as a means to bring the country together in mourning for the hundreds of thousands of lives that had been lost in that terrible conflict. After World War I, the day was expanded to include all military service members who’d lost their lives in war, prior to becoming an official federal holiday in 1971.
“Today, decorating graves is not the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of Memorial Day. It’s about sharing moments of happiness with the people that we love the most,” Villanueva said. “Our focus is often on what we have, and not on what we’ve lost.”
Villanueva proceeded to share the story of one particular soldier he’d served with and lost in Afghanistan — a comrade he would never forget.
“A young man — a kid, really — named Jesse Dietrich,” he said.
U.S. Army Spc. Dietrich was a Texan who’d enlisted at 18 to provide for an infant son, and he and Villanueva served together as part of the famed 10th Mountain Division.
“On the night of August 25, 2011, we were called to interdict some members of the Taliban,” Villanueva recalled. “We were ambushed. Jesse didn’t make it. He was 20 years old, and he left behind a 2-year-old son named Kevin.
“So if you do one thing this Memorial Day, think about those who sacrificed. Think of the 1.1 million and their families,” Villanueva said.
“I’ll think about my friend Jesse, who was buried on the plains of Texas under an oak tree older than the holiday itself, and think about the grave being decorated today by the son who never got to know his dad.”
We can only laud Villanueva and thank everyone else who has put on the uniform to fight for and serve our nation, but in truth, Memorial Day is not for men and women like him who served and came home, but for the men and women like Jesse Dietrich, who sacrificed their lives so that others may live in freedom and prosperity.
We join Villanueva in mourning his loss, as well as the other 1.1 million who made that incredible sacrifice, and we pray that the families of those who were lost will find peace and the strength to persevere in honor of those who never came home.
Please, if only for a brief moment on this hallowed day, forget about the BBQ or beach party or whatever else is going on and focus your thoughts on those who are no longer here to enjoy the freedom to grill and go to the beach and be with friends and family, as well as those grieving souls who will always sorely miss their lost loved ones.
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