On Memorial Day I honor fellow Marines killed in war – Luckily, I only lost my legs

On Monday, perhaps more than in most recent years, we shouldn’t just observe Memorial Day – we should celebrate it and the American heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country.

As a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who lost more than two dozen of my fellow Marines fighting the wars abroad – and a few fighting an internal war here at home – I feel many emotions thinking of the brave warriors I fought alongside.

All these Marines were volunteers. Most of them enlisted during a time of war, each man making the personal decision that the promise of freedom for us all was more important than the prospect of a long life for himself.

While my own life changed dramatically in 2010 – when an improvised explosive device blew up and caused me to lose both legs above the knee and severely damaged my right forearm and both wrists – I was blessed to survive for a second chance at life. That’s something the heroes we honor this holiday didn’t have.

My sacrifice is nothing compared to those who lost their lives, and I think of their bravery and patriotism every day – not just on Memorial Day.

Among the many I knew well, a few close friends are tattooed on my arm and in my heart. Their faces are always present in my mind and I feel their impact on my life.

I reflect with gratitude on Marine Cpl. Daniel Greer, who died from the bomb that took my legs.

A University of Tennessee Volunteers fan, he had a special kind of charisma to win me – a diehard Bulldog fan from Georgia – over, and he that did almost immediately. His selflessness showed through as he stood by my side with a rifle to provide security while I worked to take apart IEDs with my hands.

And I remember and honor Marine Gunnery Sgt. Floyd Holley, who was killed dismantling the IEDs I would’ve been responsible for had I not gotten hurt just a few weeks earlier. He was a mentor and friend with a baby girl due just a few months later. I can’t help but think that if I hadn’t lost my legs, I might have been killed by the bomb that tragically took his life. God knows I’d trade places with him in a heartbeat, but that just wasn’t my choice to make.

I also think about my childhood best friend, Marine Sgt. Chris McDonald, who survived the worst of the war in Iraq only to struggle with his own demons like depression and opioid addiction. We worked hard to help him through his struggle, but we lost him when he took his own life in 2012.

These are just a few of my brothers in arms – among the finest sons our great nation has produced – who likely would have lived decades longer had they not put their devotion to America ahead of themselves.

These men aren’t just numbers that disappear in the more than 1.1milllion Americans who’ve perished in our nation’s wars. They, like all the others, were human beings who had dreams and insecurities, who loved and were loved. They were sons and fathers, brothers and husbands.

It’s not enough to simply remember them with solemn thoughts. We have to honor them by allowing their sacrifice to effect positive change in country and in our lives. We should vote with our fallen heroes in mind. We should demand our leaders make decisions of war with the greatest of care and demand that they fulfill promises made to those who return from war.

But honoring America’s war dead starts with ourselves. We have to connect the sacrifices of each and every American who died for our country with the benefits resulting from their sacrifice.

We often hear the phrases on Memorial Day and other days that “freedom isn’t free” and “honor those who died protecting our freedoms.” But rarely do we hear these phrases at a time when our freedoms have been limited or taken away altogether, as has happened during the current coronavirus pandemic.

Millions of us have endured some two months of lockdowns and isolation in a war against a microscopic enemy that is confirmed to have taken the lives of nearly 100,000 people in our country. By the end of the Memorial Day weekend, the number of dead from the coronavirus may exceed 100,000.

The new invisible enemy taking the lives of men, women and children in our country – including many elderly military veterans – has prevented many of us from exercising freedoms protected by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Who among us could have imagined at the beginning of the year that our freedom to gather to worship God, or to exercise our other First and Second Amendment rights, or just to go shopping or eat in a restaurant, would have vanished for a time in an effort to save lives from this virus and give our country time to fight against it.

These freedoms were something we took for granted, perhaps more so than the generations of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. They were freedoms that our earliest generations of Americans quite literally fought and died to obtain, and later generations have fought and died to secure.

Perhaps for the first time in a long time we have the opportunity on this Memorial Day to truly connect the sacrifice of our heroes with the impact this has had on our own daily lives. As our country begins to reopen, there’s a renewed passion and appreciation for these freedoms awakening in millions of Americans across the country.

Today I don’t challenge you to simply remember my fellow Marines Chris, Floyd or Daniel … or any of the other Americans who have given their lives for our country. I also challenge you to celebrate what their laying down of their lives has provided for you. Honor them by enjoying the freedoms in your life they helped secure by sacrificing their own lives.

This is America, and we do stand for goodness towards all, self-determination and collective progress. As we all just witnessed, when necessary we will sacrifice, not just for ourselves, but for those among us who are vulnerable and in need.

So turn up a beverage and turn on a song, enjoy the sweet taste of your favorite food and the sweet warmth of the sun on your face. Look at the people you love, smiles on their faces and know, if only for a day … that heroes who were strangers to you knew that your life and freedom were worth dying for.

Now it’s up to you to make life and freedom worth living for.

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