For military families like mine, this Memorial Day is going to feel a little different.
We will still gather to honor our loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation — those like my brother Travis, killed in combat 15 years ago defending his fellow Marines in Iraq. We will still feel the pain of their loss and the warmth of their memory. But strange as it may seem, it will be hard to escape a sense of peace.
Since the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan last summer, this year will mark the first Memorial Day in 20 years when our country is not at war. It will be our first Memorial Day at peace in decades. Our men and women in uniform continue to serve around the world — and here at home — putting their lives on the line to defend our freedom, but with the conclusion of the mission in Afghanistan they are no longer engaged in combat. That means far fewer knocks at the door, and far fewer flags that arrive draped over coffins to be later folded and handed to grieving families at places like Arlington National Cemetery.
For the families who lost relatives in our recent conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan — for those whose loved ones are buried, like my brother, in Section 60 of Arlington — this Memorial Day will be especially poignant. Many of the young children of the fallen have never known their country to not be at war. It is the challenge of those families to make sure that a nation at peace does not lose sight of the sacrifices of war. All Americans should remember that while we may not see footage of our troops in combat regularly flashed across our TV or computer screens, the effects of those wars are felt by millions of our fellow countrymen.
Nowhere is that more apparent than on the hallowed ground of Arlington Cemetery, and the military cemeteries like it across the nation. On any given day, and especially on Memorial Day, you will see the best of America: not only the memorials to the fallen, of all races and ages and backgrounds but equal in their devotion to duty and country — but the cross-section of the nation to be found in the living who gather to honor them. When you come to a military cemetery to pay your respects, nobody cares where you come from, how much money you make, or who you voted for in the last election. The people who are buried in those sacred places died in service to all of us, without regard to any of those distinctions.
On Memorial Day 2020, many families were prevented by Covid-19 restrictions from traveling to visit the graves of their fallen servicemembers. The following year, to make sure our heroes were not forgotten, the Travis Manion Foundation organized hundreds of volunteers — some Gold Star families, some veterans, some patriotic Americans with no personal military connection — to visit 4,000 gravesites at Arlington. We reflected on the service and sacrifice of those buried there, stood in for the family members unable to be with them, and left small tokens of remembrance at their graves. That’s how The Honor Project was born.
This year, The Honor Project has expanded to include Jacksonville National Cemetery in Florida; Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in California; Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas; Fort Logan National Cemetery in Colorado; Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Pennsylvania; and West Point National Cemetery in New York. With local volunteers and dedicated friends willing to travel, we will ensure that thousands more fallen American heroes will not be forgotten this Memorial Day.
I know where I’ll be: in Section 60 at Arlington, visiting my brother who gave what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” 15 years ago, and those Americans like him who lost their lives in our recent conflicts. All of our volunteers who will visit these cemeteries have given up their days off on a long weekend, a small sacrifice in honor of those who made the ultimate. They have chosen to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Before Travis left for Iraq the last time, he told our family: “If not me, than who … ”
By asking ourselves the same question, on Memorial Day and every day, we can live lives worthy of the sacrifice he and his fellow heroes have given.
Ryan Manion is the Gold Star sister of Marine Corps 1st Lt. Travis Manion and president of the Travis Manion Foundation, a leading Gold Star family and veteran service organization that unites communities to strengthen America’s national character by empowering veterans and families of fallen heroes to develop and lead future generations. She is inspired by the character, leadership and sacrifice of her brother Travis, who made the ultimate sacrifice in Anbar province, Iraq, while drawing fire away from his wounded comrades on April 29, 2007.