Memorial Day, 2004
Today, as Americans, we come together to pay tribute to those who, in the words of Lincoln, gave their "last full measure of devotion
" This is day when we honor those who have honored us beyond measure.
With heartfelt humility and gratitude, we acknowledge that we can never fully repay those who have given us their precious gift of life. We recognize that no words can ever truly express our thanks for such sacrifice.
On this Memorial Day, we pay special respect to our World War II veterans and the 408,000 youth of the greatest generation who gave their lives to protect the American dream of freedom and opportunity.
Our prayers are also with the youth of a new generation who, as we speak, are serving in harm's way in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world in the war against terrorism.
Every morning in Washington, D.C., on my way to the U.S. Capitol, I drive by Arlington National Cemetery. In this eternal resting place for America's hallowed heroes, the silence of dawn is broken only by the watch guard's walk at the Tomb of the Unknown soldier.
I cannot help but feel a deep sense of reverence as I glance at row after row of white tombstones. I cannot help but feel this is God's special sanctuary.
Buried there are so many who gave us the love described in John 15:13 as the greatest love of all-to lay down one's life for his neighbor.
Even in their eternal silence, the hills of Arlington Cemetery speak of the American story and spirit. Our destiny has been shaped by the sacrifices of the famous and the unknown, by Presidents and Privates, by citizens of all colors, races and creeds-all bound by a common bond of duty to country.
Now names on tombstones, these were once living fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Death was not their choice. Heroism was not their goal, but they courageously answered their nation's call to duty, and in doing so, became heroes.
Like all of us, they wanted to come home to the hugs of their children-to the love of their families. They wanted to once again feel the joy of watching their children grow. They dreamed of living a long life where one day they could be called Granddad or Grandmother and savor the warmth of a grandchild tucked in their arms.
The sacrifice of these brave Americans was not theirs alone, and it did not end with their death. Their parents, spouses and children-they, too, have sacrificed dearly for our nation. To those loved ones, some here today, we pay tribute to you for the burden you have borne and continue to bear in behalf of our nation.
Let me also say we will miss Mrs. Earl Rudder and Mrs. Olin E. Teague. They were true partners in the greatest generation, which saved the world from Hitler and Hirohito and then continued giving so much to our nation. No two families ever loved Texas A&M or our nation more than the Rudders and the Teagues. Once again, in death as in life, they are reunited.
How does one put a price on the sacrifice of a wife, whose heart fluttered with fear every time there was a knock at the front door for years, not knowing if it was the dreaded notice that her loved one had died in battle? How does one put a price on the family time missed because of call to duty? There are no make up days for missed births, first steps and graduations.
There can be no price placed on a child never getting to know her mom or dad who was killed in combat. Nothing can measure the pain of a Gold Star mother who had to live the reality of every parent's nightmare-to bury one's own child.
Our military spouses and children may not have worn our nation's uniform, but they, too, have shared the sacrifice of war.
One can only wonder what might have been for those whose lives were cut short by their service to country. What families might have been started? What songs might have been sung? What inventions might have been created? What love and warmth and kindness might have been ours to know?
What we do know is that over one million Americans have showed us the greatest love of all.
What we do know is that, because of their sacrifice, Lady Liberty still stands with outstretched arm in New York Harbor. Because of their sacrifice, the Statue of Freedom still stands atop our nation's capitol as a symbol of our land of the free.
What we do know is that we Americans can each pray in our own way and express our views of conscience without fear of being imprisoned. What we do know is that we have opportunities that most people of the world could only dream about.
By protecting God's divine gift of freedom, the million Americans who have died in combat and our veterans who have served in uniform have left the American family and the world a lasting legacy.
Together, you have defined the true meaning of public service. As a father of two little boys, I express my profound thanks to you for making the world a better place for them and for future generations.
The question I often ask myself is what is the proper way to express respect for the selfless sacrifice of our nation's servicemen and women and veterans?
Perhaps President Lincoln asked that question when he prepared his remarks for Gettysburg.
His eloquent answer speaks to us even today when he said this, "But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have hallowed it far above our poor power to add or detract. It is rather for us the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
John McCrae's words from Flanders echo this challenge to us,
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead, Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
These powerful words of challenge from the cemeteries of Flanders and Gettysburg remind us that it is not enough to just honor our veterans with words on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. We should honor their sacrifices every day, with our words and deeds. These powerful words challenge us to take the torch of freedom, given to us by the selfless sacrifice of previous generations, and to pass that torch on to future generations by our own service and sacrifice to our neighbors, community and country.
Then, and only then, can we rest at peace, knowing that we have truly honored the lives of those who gave us their last full measure of devotion.
May God forever keep in his loving arms those Americans who gave us the greatest love of all.