They came from farms, cities and small towns like Gainesville, Flowery Branch and Lula and tens of thousands just like them, from Atlantic to Pacific and everywhere in-between.
They were male and female, tall and short, black and white, Asian, Latino and Native-American. They came from rich, poor and middle-class families. Some had grand plans for college and life beyond; others were high school dropouts with nowhere else to go.
Some joined by choice, others were drafted. They all put on the uniform of the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Air Force. They sweated and suffered through basic training, hardened their bodies and minds to the rigors of combat and learned how to kill and not be killed.
And then they were sent off around the globe. To the hedgerows of Europe and sandy beaches of Pacific islands. To the jungles of Korea and Vietnam. To the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.
They marched, they fought, they suffered, they did as they were ordered.
And for many, those foreign soils would be their final resting spots.
In all, more than 1.3 million Americans have lost their lives fighting in our many wars since our republic was formed more than 200 years ago. And let's not forget, too, the 3,000 plus who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, and others before and since, who never put on a uniform but became casualties of a war never declared.
We are a nation, like it or not, forged by war. It took a war to create our independence, a war to establish it, a war to unite the country when it threatened to break apart, and a handful of wars in the 20th and 21st centuries to keep dictators, despots and the scourge of oppression from taking hold.
In every campaign, American men and women in uniform willingly swallowed their fears, gripped their rifles and headed off to be sacrificed so our nation and world might know freedom and peace, blessings never truly given but hard-earned and won time and time again.
To honor them, we set aside Memorial Day to honor their memories. We hold parades, we wave flags and we place wreaths on their graves, we sing "God Bless America" to cauterize their amazing service into our hearts for all time.
In Washington, we erected dramatic, awe-inspiring memorials to the veterans of our wars, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. On the latter, the names of 58,000 lost souls are engraved for all time while relatives, friends and fellow soldiers leave their own trinkets and flowers as poignant mementos.
And yet it is not nearly enough. Not even close.
How do you honor such sacrifice? How do you reward such valor? How do you celebrate a selflessness that leads young heroes to lay down their lives for a country they have seen only a tiny portion of?
We can't. We can only try. We can put out our flags, say a prayer, write newspaper editorials. We do this because it's all we can do. We can't step in front of the hail of bullets or missiles they endured, nor can we bring them back.
During World War II, it became customary for the families of service members to put a blue star emblem in their windows. Then one day would come a telegram, or perhaps a messenger in uniform, to inform them that a loved one had been killed on the field of battle. And those blue stars in the window then were replaced by gold stars.
So many gold stars. So many empty places at the table. So many parents left to grieve, proudly but themselves wounded, feeling the void of a lost child but fulfilled by the knowledge that their horrible pain has helped preserve the nation they love so much. And it was their love of country that was passed on to such brave offspring that kept them marching forward to the dangers that awaited them.
It's so much to ask of people, yet we ask it still. Freedom requires the constant drumbeat of our might to protect it where it is threatened. Peace is not the default human condition. We must fight to maintain it, paradoxical as that may seem.
Those 1.3 million aren't the end of the line. Thousands still serve overseas, never knowing what danger they face around the next bend. Rogue nations and trouble spots remain, and the enemies of our way of life have only begun to fight.
We will lose more. There will be more gold stars in windows to replace blue stars and yellow ribbons tied around trees. Too many more will not come home, but that is the terrible price we pay.
As always, another generation of frightened but brave, young but capable Americans will wade into battle. It is the destiny of our nation, one we do not shy from. We know that the death of our young warriors, however horrific, is a pain we must endure. And so do they.
On this Memorial Day, let us remember the lessons of the past and not forget a single soul among those whose graves — some unmarked, some "unknown," some miles beneath the ocean or secluded in quiet woodlands around the globe — mark this day as nobly and as dramatically as any flag, parade or John Philip Sousa tune.
They came from farms, cities and small towns. And though they never returned to those homes, we must never — ever — let them be forgotten.