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A debt of memory to brothers and sisters, gratefully paid


Memorial Day has always had an identity crisis. Even in the very beginning, it was only for Union soldiers, not merging all "Decoration Day" activities until after World War One. In 1971, Memorial Day became the last Monday in May instead of May 30. This move, designed to create a three-day weekend, irritated many by adding to the day an air of celebration instead of reflection: picnics, parades, ballgames, sales -- the start of the summer party. That doesn't bother me: somewhere in the 1.5 million soldiers remembered every Memorial Day there is certainly someone who would have really enjoyed another picnic, parade, ball game or day shopping. Some of those sacrificed would have liked one more party or one more prayer. It's all good.

I remember some of my teammates and shipmates who didn't make it. Neal, as nice and stand-up a person as ever walked the earth, died in combat in Afghanistan, alone and outnumbered in the Tora Bora mountains. There was Brian, a Bostonian, killed in Afghanistan when his HMMV hit a mine; I served with him at SEAL Team Four. Woody and Jeff, shipmates who died when our helicopter crashed, and Steve, another teammate who died in the same crash.

Steve was laughing a split second before we crashed, a joyful expression forever etched in my mind. Pete was one of my phase officers at Basic Underwater Demolition School. He was a great guy who was killed in South America in a training accident. Mark and Brad, two more SEALs, were killed in training accidents. I didn't know either of them well before I was assigned to do the investigations into their deaths. I remember explaining the circumstances of Mark's death to his widow, as his three-month-old son lay cradled in his mother's arms. Tragic.

Philosophically at least, Memorial Day is easy for me, because I have people to remember - people who were alive and full of potential one day and dead the next, people with whom I laughed, partied, worked and went to war. On Memorial Day, and many other days, I remember them. But, I wonder, how do I remember someone I never knew? Though estimates vary widely, the nation's military war dead since the Revolutionary War number more than one and a half million - one and a half million faces of a national treasure. How do you remember a million and a half people you never met? Or more precisely, how is it that you memorialize them as unique and precious individuals with hopes, potential, and dreams - individuals who had people that loved them, to whom they were more than just a name on a list? I'm not sure you can.

It is certainly not possible to know them all or even who they all were, so perhaps it is inevitable that they become part of a long gray line. Still, it is important to honor those lives and remember, if not the individuals, at least that they were individuals, individuals so diverse in their interests and aspects as to be impossible to merge.

Memorial Day must at least remind us of the extraordinary cost of war and the critical responsibility to carefully understand what it means to add names to the Roll of Honor before committing soldiers and civilians to combat. Everyone in today's military is a volunteer, but that doesn't lessen our responsibility to spend those lives sparingly and only with the deepest of consideration, even if we are afraid. That those volunteers are more at risk is a fact; that they volunteered is moot; that they deserve to be at greater risk is false. Fear cannot be our motivator. It is important to honor the sacrifices of a million and a half individuals by committing to be at least as courageous as they were.

I don't know how our founders had the courage to stand against the world's superpower for a bunch of liberal ideas that had never been successfully put into practice, but they did. From that moment on we owed them and every person who gave up life or limb in defense of "inalienable rights" a debt of gratitude. No, more than that. We owe them the guarantee that they did not die in vain.

Since 2001, we have added more than 1,600 names to the Roll of Honor. From Crispus Attucks, the first to die as a United States soldier, to the soldier that may die today - you were my brothers and sisters in arms. I did not know you all, could not know you all, but I remember.

Tom Rancich lives in West Tisbury. He retired recently from a career as a Navy SEAL with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He is now executive director of Sail Martha's Vineyard. The Times asked Mr. Rancich to write about the meaning of Memorial Day.


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