By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (May 31, 2021) -- Memorial Day originated 153 years ago to commemorate the lives of those who died defending the United States during the Civil War. Today it is the day set aside to honor and recognize all who have died while fighting in the nation's service.
Many of the service members who died most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan are now buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. While speaking today at the Memorial Amphitheater at the cemetery, President Joe Biden said that while walking though Section 60, he is reminded of the cost of war.
"Hundreds of graves are here from recent conflicts," Biden said. "Hundreds of patriots gave their all ... each of them leaving behind a family who live with their pain in their absence every single day. I want to assure each of those families -- we will never forget what you gave to our country. We will never fail to honor your sacrifice."
Biden said that as vice president, he began to carry with him in his pocket the number of troops who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, he said, that number stands at 7,036.
"[That's] 7,036 fallen angels who have lost their lives in these conflicts," he said. "And on this Memorial Day, we honor the legacy and their sacrifice: duty, honor, country. They live[d] for it. They died for it. And we as a nation are eternally grateful."
What America is grateful for, the president said, is the freedom those men and women secured by conducting operations on the nation's behalf, and dying while doing so.
"America has been forged ... in the fires of war," Biden said. "Our freedom and the freedom of innumerable others has been secured by young men and women who answered the call of history, and gave everything in the service of an idea."
The idea, he said, is that every American is created equal.
"We're all created equal in the image of almighty God ... we're all entitled to dignity, as my father would say, and respect. Decency and honor, love of neighbor -- they're not empty words, but the vital beating heart of our nation.
Democracy must be defended, Biden said, because it is democracy that makes possible the idea that is the United States.
"Democracy -- that's the soul of America," he said. "I believe it's a soul worth fighting for, and so do you -- a soul worth dying for. Heroes lie in eternal peace in this beautiful place, this sacred place, [and] they believed that too."
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, and Maj. Gen. Omar J. Jones, commander of Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region and U.S. Army Military District of Washington, laid a wreath today at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Austin recalled meeting with the widow of one of the service members who was killed in Afghanistan, and who now lies buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. Marine Corps reservist Staff Sgt. Chris Slutman was killed by a suicide bomber in Bagram in April 2019; his widow Shannon and their three children today struggle with the loss.
"She told us that before her husband left on one of his deployments, she sat him down and said, 'God forbid something happens to you, but if it does, where do you want me to bury you?' And he told her, 'I don't care -- I just want to be near you,'" Austin said.
Gold Star families, such as Shannon and her children, Austin said, continue to struggle long after the funerals for their loved ones have ended.
"It is our sacred duty to do more to ease the burden that they shoulder, on Memorial Day and every day," he said. "For as long as America has sent our sons and daughters into harm's way, those on the homefront have also been on the front lines."
More than 1.3 million American service men and women have died as a result of American wars. Memorial Day commemorates their sacrifices.
"For the loved ones of those who have fallen, let me simply say: We know the depth of your sacrifice," Austin said. " But we can never truly know the depth of your loss. What we can do is honor the memory of those you lost -- by caring for those who mourn them ... by seeking to perfect our union and defend our democracy ... and by striving to live our lives in ways that advance the ideals for which they gave their own."