On Monday, the United States will pause to mark Memorial Day, a day set aside to pay tribute to those who have died in any American war. This year the day falls less than a month after the end of major combat in Iraq. There are at least 162 Americans who gave their lives in the most recent war whose sacrifices will be remembered in ceremonies across the country.
The names of those Americans, as well as other coalition casualties, are printed in today's newspaper as a reminder that those who died in Iraq were more than numbers. They were sons, fathers, husbands, friends, brothers.
And single mothers.
Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 23, was the only servicewoman killed during the Iraq War. A member of the Hopi Tribe in Arizona, the single mother of two was killed March 23 with seven others when their unit was attacked after making a wrong turn near Nasiriyah, The Associated Press reported. Her tribe and family remember her as their "warrior lady."
Every ethnic group, religion, occupation and corner of America is represented in the list of the newest war dead. They had plans for the future. They were young a lot of teenagers are in that list and they gave their lives in the hope of making the world a better, safer place.
Helen O'Neill, a special correspondent for the AP, gives glimpses into some of their lives:
Marine Lance Cpl. Michael J. Williams from Phoenix was so imbued with patriotism after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks he gave up his flooring business to join the Marines. He told his fiance, Heather Strange, that if anything ever happened to him, he would be her guardian angel for life.
Marine Maj. Jay Thomas Aubin of Waterville, Maine, possessed such a gentle nature that his Marine buddies called him ''Sweet Pea.''
Army Capt. James F. Adamouski of Springfield, Va., had just been accepted to Harvard Business School and planned to teach economics at West Point after he graduated. Knowing how much his mother worried about him flying helicopters, Adamouski assured her that he was in the safest position. ''I'll be safe, and I'll fly low, and I'll fly fast,'' he told her.
Kendall Damon Waters-Bey will be remembered in Baltimore for how he loved fishing with his 10-year-old son and enjoyed cooking up a batch of ribs on the back yard barbecue. The 29-year-old staff sergeant died in a helicopter crash in Kuwait on March 21.
Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, 28, an orphan who grew up on the streets of Guatemala and made his own way to the United States, was posthumously awarded citizenship after giving his life for his adopted country. Raised by a foster family, he was one of the first U.S. Marines to die in Iraq.
While those who have never known them will praise their ultimate sacrifice, O'Neill writes that those who knew them will remember the simpler things "their smiles, their touches, their last words."
Those last words offer comfort to families, but they also serve as a poignant reminder of just how much giving the "ultimate sacrifice" means.
In her story, O'Neill reports: "'Dad, I'll never take anything for granted again,' Army Spc. Donald Samuel Oaks Jr. of Harborcreek, Pa., told his father in a last phone call from Kuwait in January. 'People don't know what they have in the United States. All I want to do is come home, take a shower, be with my family and go fishing.'"
Plenty of Alaskans can identify with Spc. Oaks' desire to "go fishing." After all, this weekend is the official start of the fishing season.
Unfortunately, too often, the pursuit of fish and other fun on this long beginning-of-summer weekend clouds the somber significance of the holiday: to honor those service men and women who died fighting for our country.
The list of America's dead in Iraq reminds us that the sacrifices made for freedom aren't abstract concepts but very real lives.
Memorial Day is a time to remember that the freedom we enjoy today is no accident. It's a good day to shed our nonchalance about patriotism and what it means to be an American. Thousands of men and women have died to ensure this country will remain strong and free. The only way to ensure these deaths are not in vain is to take time to reflect on them.
And to work for peace.
The public is invited and encouraged to participate in Memorial Day events in Kenai on Monday.
At 11 a.m., there will be the "avenue of the flags" at the Kenai cemetery. There will be the laying of wreaths, a rifle salute, taps and an F-15 flyover from Elmendorf Air Force Base beginning at 1 p.m. at Leif Hansen Memorial Park in Kenai. The service is sponsored by American Legion Post No. 20 and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 10046.
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