For more than 200 years, the truths that we hold to be self-evident have compelled Americans to fight and even to fall in military service. The individuals of the U.S. Armed Forces provide a plumb line for courage around the globe.
Memorial Day, in particular, reminds us that this resolve has led more than 1 million Americans to surrender their lives, and it invites us to consider what their sacrifice tells us about our nation and about each other.
We often say that American men and women have fought on behalf of freedom, and this is wholly true. At the same time, I believe these service members are guardians of something even more fundamental than our right to bear arms and speak our minds.
In their lives and in their deaths, the people we memorialize on the last Monday of each May advocated for human dignity — that all men and women are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. We insist on our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as symptoms of the central human condition: Every person’s value is unquestionable and is anchored in the One who created the world in which we live.
From the nation’s beginning, Americans have united around this principle, though no one claims that our government and citizens have always been perfectly faithful to it. Rather, the equal dignity of all people remains our national compass and redirects us when our society loses its way and undervalues our neighbors or undermines our freedoms.
The same compass has guided this country in its military action. The world’s darkest regimes are those that have run most afoul of freedom and human dignity. For that reason, our service members have fallen on battlefields fighting the Axis powers, North Korea and other rogue forces.
America is not a nation that asks people to fight and die for ivory towers. We are a nation that prioritizes human life and dignity. That’s why Memorial Day honors a class of American individuals rather than American ideals. When the idea of unalienable rights begins to seem abstract, we recognize that the cost of freedom is always concrete. We measure that cost in lost fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters.
As an Iraq War veteran serving in the Air Force Reserve, May 29 is a day for me to remember the service of others. As a military chaplain, one of the greatest honors of my life has been to walk alongside some of the heroes that we remember today. These protectors often awoke to face a day full of certain danger while grappling with the darkness they encountered in corners of the world that most of us will never see. When they laid down their lives, they did so for their brothers in arms and our mothers at home because, unlike despots such as Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, they valued liberty and justice for all.
Each Memorial Day, we lower the flag to honor the service members who, in giving up their lives, testify to the sanctity of every life and its expression through personal liberty. Defending freedom to the point of death illustrates the value we place on all 321 million particular American lives, and we raise the flag to full mast again at noon as a promise that the sacrifices of our military heroes drive us forward to pursue in life what they championed in death.
May God bless their souls and let us learn from their conviction.
Doug Collins represents Georgia’s 9th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Contact him at 1504 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515, 202-225-9893; 210 Washington St. NW, Suite 202, Gainesville 30501, 770-297-3388; dougcollins.house.gov.