EDITOR’S NOTE: Micheal Foster is a junior at Decorah High School. He was chosen to give the annual Memorial Day speech on the steps of the Winneshiek County courthouse.
The origins of this Memorial Day can be traced back to the Civil War. One hundred fifty three years later, Memorial Day remains one of America’s most cherished patriotic observances.
The spirit of this day has not changed -- it remains a day to honor those who died defending our freedom and democracy. I am not here today to recite patriotic verses, to tell you things you already know, to give some rah rah and send you home thinking, “Well, what was the point?” While those types of speeches are important, and certainly have a place, I think we could all use a little break from the “politician speech.”
I’m here today to make you think. You have demonstrated already, by simply being here, that you are doing your darndest to embody the patriotic spirit. But there’s a lot more to it. Being an American is more than an identity; it’s a duty. It seems to me that a good chunk of the population may not quite realize that anymore. Over time, gratitude and thankfulness have shifted to an entitled mentality.
The theme of this day is to remember. After all, memorial, by definition, is something established to help people remember someone, an event, or in this case a concept. Certainly it would be easy to argue me on this, that this day is simply a federal holiday in which fallen soldiers are remembered. While this is true, I think it’s more than that.
Both my grandfathers were military men, one having been a gunner in the Army Air Corp during World War II, and the other serving in the Air Force for a time, and then serving 35 years in the Army Reserves. By the time I was born, only my latter grandfather was alive, and he was in the grips of a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
When I was little, I remember sitting next to his bed, his mobility being very restricted, and his speech forever silent. We would use a small whiteboard to communicate back and forth. I can remember learning to write and read, simple math problems. Early stuff.
One day I remember practicing writing my name in cursive. After a couple times, my grandfather picked up the board and shakily wrote the following. With an arrow point at my neatly written cursive name, oh who am I kidding, my handwriting has never been anything to write home about, no pun intended, but with an arrow pointing at my name he wrote this is who you are, but never forget who “you” are.
It took me a long time to understand the meaning of it, and I suppose it can mean a range of things to many different people. But to all of us, it has a meaning. And it has a place here today. We are here not only to remember those who sacrificed so much, but we are here to remember what they sacrificed it for.
We know that honoring our veterans with words alone falls terribly short if we do not bring those words to life by honoring them equally with deeds worthy of their sacrifice. When we all walk away from here and go to various celebrations, when the weekend is over and all the flags come down off the lampposts, we need to ask ourselves, what more can we do to honor their legacy? How can we give them something more than a ceremony and a moment’s gratitude?
Each reason for serving is specific for each veteran, but if a theme can be drawn, it is to protect the great nation in which we live, and the freedoms we possess. We, as citizens, also have a duty to protect these freedoms, although not in the same manner. As a collective identity, we are Americans. But what is the meaning this word has? You can call yourself an American, but are you an American?
What makes up an American? In the words of Harold Ickes, not creed nor race nor religion. Not the pedigree of his family nor the place of his birth. Not the coincidence of his citizenship. Not his social status nor his wealth. Not his trade nor his profession. An American is one who loves justice and believes in the dignity of man.
An American is one who will fight for his freedom and that of his neighbor. An American is one who will sacrifice property, ease and security in order that he and his children may retain the rights of free men. An American is one in whose heart is engraved the immortal second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.
But we, as Americans, have lost our way. It has become the mass, rather than the minority, that takes the rights and freedoms so valuable to past generations for granted. Remember with me the famous words of Patrick Henry:
“Our brethren are already in the field. Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God. I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death.”
Today friends, our fight is not against a visible foe. The chains that threaten to bind us are complacency, ignorance and the most dangerous, assumption. We as Americans must exercise our rights to avoid being what Thomas Paine called a summer and sunshine patriot.
What I mean by this is we, as Americans, have a duty to carry out the duties entrusted to us by our founding documents and previous generations. If we allow ourselves to assume these freedoms are free, go through the motions by spending two maybe three days a year honoring veterans, selecting candidates because they have a cool name, or because they belong to a specific party. Allowing your voice to go unheard because the public forum is on Grey’s Anatomy night. If we allow ourselves to slip, all that these men and women have fought for, all that our past generations have accomplished, will be for nothing.
So I ask you on this day of remembrance to remember what it means to be an American. And as an American, what can you do, no, what must you do, to help our soldiers, our veterans and our fallen loved ones accomplish their duty, to continue to uphold and better this great nation. Thank you.