May 30, 2005
Thank you for allowing me the honor of joining you here today.
This is my first time visiting the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, and as I was driving through I thought to myself that the staff and the volunteers who have made this possible should feel very proud of the work they're doing - this is a beautiful place for our veterans to come home to.
Among red maples and sturdy oaks, over 10,000 Americans now lay here, resting peacefully under an endless Illinois sky.
They rest in silence. On a typical day, except for scattered footsteps or the soft gurgling of a stream, I imagine you could walk row after row of headstones without hearing a single sound.
It isn't until you come across another visitor - a widow watering the plant she brought for her husband; a little girl planting a flag at her father's headstone; a mother shedding tears on the wreath she will lay for her son - that you realize something: In this place we have come to associate with the quiet of death, the memories of loved ones speak to us so strongly that when we stop and listen, we can't help but hear life.
And once a year on this day, in the fullness of spring, in the presence of those who never really leave us, it is life that we honor. Lives of courage, lives of sacrifice, and the ultimate measure of selflessness - lives that were given to save others.
What led these men and women to wear their country's uniform?
What is it that leads anyone to put aside their own pursuit of happiness; to subordinate their own sense of survival, for something larger - something greater?
Behind each stone is one of these stories; a personal journey that eventually led to the decision to fight for one's country and defend the freedoms we enjoy. Most of the Americans who rest here were like my grandfather, a WWII vet who volunteered after Pearl Harbor, fought in Patton's Army, but was lucky enough to came back in one piece, and went on to live well into his twilight years.
My grandfather never boasted about it. He treated the fact that he served in the military like it was only a matter of fact.
And so it is easy for us to forget sometimes that, like my grandfather, the men and women resting here, whose service spans a century of conflict from the Civil War to the War in Iraq, chose their path at a very young age.
These were kids who went to war.
They had a whole life ahead of them - birthdays and weddings, holidays with children and grandchildren, homes and jobs and happiness of their own. And yet, at one moment or another, they felt the tug. Maybe it was a President's call to save the Union and to free the slaves. Maybe it was the day of infamy that awakened a nation to the dangers of Fascism. Or maybe it was the morning we saw our security dissappear then the twin towers collapsed.
And at that moment, whatever the moment was, these men and women thought of a mom or a dad, a husband or a wife, or a child not yet born. They thought of a landscape, or a way of life, or a flag, or the words of freedom they'd learned to love. And they determined that it was time to go. They decided: "I must serve so that the people I love may live - happily, safely, freely."
Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked that "To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might."
The Americans who lay here believed.
And when they waved goodbye to their families - some for the last time - they held those beliefs close as they crossed the ocean towards an unknown destiny.
And they made us very proud.
No matter how many veterans you may meet, or how many stories of heroism you may hear, every encounter reminds you that through their service, these men and women have lived out the ideals that stir our Nation - honor, duty, sacrifice.
They're people like Seamus Ahern, who I met during the campaign at a V.F.W. hall in East Moline, Illinois. He told me about how he'd joined the Marines because his country had given so much to him, and he felt that as a young person he needed to give something back. We became friends and we kept in touch over email while he was in Iraq. One day he sent me an email that said "I'm sorry I haven't written more often - I've been a little busy over here in Falujah." I had to reply "I don't think it's necessary to apologize."
They're people like Major Tammy Duckworth, a helicopter pilot with the Illinois Army Guard. Four months ago, she lost both of her legs when a rocket was shot through the floor of her Black Hawk helicopter over Iraq. And yet, last month she came to the United States Senate to testify about ways we can improve the process of rehabilitating injured vets, and as we speak she has already begun training so that she can fly again for her country one day.
They're the people I had the honor of meeting at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. Young men and women who may have lost limbs or broken their backs or severed their nerves, but have not lost the will to live, or the pride they feel in having served their country. They have no time for self-pity, but wish only to recuperate as quickly as they can, and meet the next challenge.
It is this quintessentially American optimism that stands out in our veterans. To meet these men and women gives you a clear sense of the quality of person we have serving in the United States Armed Forces.
No wonder, then, that when these men and women come home from war, they return to parades and salutes, the arms of loved ones and the waving flags of children.
But today, on Memorial Day, we also remember that some come home in a different way. The news of their impending arrival is delivered with a soft knock on the door. Their return comes with the sound of a twenty-one gun salute and the lonely notes of taps.
I won't pretend that simple words of condolence could ever ease the pain of the loss for the families they leave behind. I am the father of two little girls, and when I see the parents who have come here today to lay wreaths for the children they lost, my heart breaks with theirs.
But I will say to those parents that here in Illinois and all across America, other children and other parents look to your children and their service as a shining example of what's best in this land.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln took a moment to sit down and personally write a condolence letter to a Mrs. Bixby of Massachusetts after he had learned that she lost five of her sons in battle. In that letter, the President wrote:
"I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."
Here on this hallowed ground and in ceremonies across the nation, we choose this day to solemnly honor those costly sacrifices - sacrifices that were made on the fields of Gettysburg, the beaches of Normandy, the deserts of Iraq, and so many other distant lands. It makes our hearts heavy; our heads bow in respect.
But amid the quiet of this spring day in Elwood, we also hear life. And as we are called by the memories of those who found the courage to lay down a life so that others may live, we thank God for blessing us with the privilege of knowing such heroic sons and daughters of America.