If you ever visit South Dakota’s State Capitol, I hope you take the time to visit the veterans’ memorial down by Capitol Lake. While this memorial is dedicated to all veterans who have served, there is a portion specifically dedicated to the more than 300 South Dakotans killed in the Korean and Vietnam wars. To one side there is an inscription: May we ever protect the freedoms for which they fought.
As we approach Memorial Day, we are reminded of our bravest South Dakotans — 3,073 service members killed in action since World War I.
The original idea for this holiday was first created 154 years ago by a Union General, John Logan, who in 1868 designated May 30th as “Decoration Day.” It is said that Logan welcomed about 5,000 patriots to Arlington National Cemetery to decorate the graves of 20,000 Civil War soldiers.
100 years after Logan’s first Decoration Day, the U.S. Congress officially designated the last Monday of May as Memorial Day. This year marks the first time in two decades that the U.S. has not been at war during Memorial Day. But we are far from the pain of mourning and loss for those 36 South Dakotans killed in action since the 9/11 attacks.
President Abraham Lincoln once said, “Honor to the Soldier, and Sailor, everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause … who braves, for the common good, the storms of heaven and the storms of battle.” Sadly, there are many soldiers who succumb to the storm. And while they were not lost on a battlefield, we must remember the 22 veterans or active-duty soldiers each day who take their lives because they could not escape the storm when they came home. Their mental wounds are as real and as deadly as any physical wounds. And their tragic deaths deserve to be tallied in the costs of war.
Honor. Courage. Sacrifice. Bravery. These are all words that apply generously to the men and women we honor on Memorial Day. But this holiday should be more than a remembrance of those we have lost. It should be an annual call to action. As the memorial says: May we ever protect the freedoms for which they fought.
In his famous Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was dedicating a new National Cemetery at the site where a decisive victory had been won by the Union Army just four months earlier. The president spoke few words, yet each weighed the heavy cost born by Americans on both sides. More than 7,000 soldiers from the North and South died in the Pennsylvania fray. “In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground,” Lincoln said in his address. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
In this moment, Lincoln cemented in our heritage that we must remember and respect those who fought and died to protect our freedoms. Not just on Memorial Day. We should carry their sacrifice with us daily.
Lincoln ended his address by reminding us why such sacrifice matters: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion … that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
I hope you will take this Memorial Day to reflect on those we have lost. Use this time to also talk about their lives outside of service. Talk about the joy they brought and the laughter shared by telling stories of the life they lived, as well as the sacrifice they made. Speak loudly and proudly about our bravest South Dakotans.