Frederick Douglass gave thousands of speeches throughout his life. But the former slave included the full text of only one in his autobiography. That speech was given in 1871 on Memorial Day, then named Decoration Day. Standing by the tomb of an unknown soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Douglass warned, “Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors.”
It turns out Douglass had no need to fear. Almost a century and a half after that speech, Americans still gather to remember service members who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Those honored include everyone from the first Americans who secured our freedom in the Revolutionary War, to recent losses in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all soldiers who have given their lives protecting our country in between.
But Memorial Day is more than an occasion to remember. The holiday calls us to renew commitments to those who serve and to their families.
Providing for Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families
Our first commitment is to those fighting today for the same freedoms past generations died defending. That includes the more than 11,500 Mississippians currently on active duty and the additional 16,000 in the reserve and our state’s National Guard. The Senate Armed Services Committee, of which I am a member, is dedicated to ensuring that these brave men and women have everything they need to fulfill their missions and return home safely from deployments.
The committee approved the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which funds our military. Our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines need updated recruitment, training, and equipment to maintain readiness and deter aggression in the 21st century. National defense is an area of common cause for all Americans, and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have worked together to understand new challenges and to provide more resources to every service branch.
Our second commitment on Memorial Day is, as Abraham Lincoln said, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” These are our veterans and Gold Star families.
As the son of a World War II veteran, the father of an Air Force officer, and a veteran myself, I understand the unique needs our troops face when they come home. We need to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs is responsive to those needs.
Gold Star families also deserve every honor and support available to them. In May, I continued that effort by cosponsoring the Gold Star Family Tax Relief Act, which will protect full military survivors’ benefits for those who have lost relatives in the line of duty. I was glad to see it pass the Senate unanimously just before the holiday.
Honoring the Legacy of our Nation’s Heroes
We can never repay the debt we owe to those we pay tribute to this Memorial Day. But we can learn from their examples and teach our children the meaning of their sacrifices.
On Memorial Day, my family and I join others from across the country to remember those who gave their last full measure of devotion and to honor the legacy of our nation’s heroes. Grateful Americans march in parades, lay wreaths, pray and observe moments of silence for the fallen – a few solemn moments that should bind us together in memory and renewed purpose.