WASHINGTON, May 31, 2010 — Vice President Joe Biden today hailed the unselfish service and sacrifices of past and present generations of U.S. servicemembers during the annual Memorial Day observance held at Arlington National Cemetery.
“Collectively, the generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have served and sacrificed for us are the heart and soul, and I would say, spine, of this nation,” Biden said. “And as a nation, we pause today to remember them; they gave their lives fulfilling their oath to this nation and to us. “And in doing so,” he continued, “they imparted a responsibility on us to recognize, to respect, to honor and to care for those who risked their lives so that we can live our lives.”
Biden, the keynote speaker at the observance held in the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater, was joined by Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The vice president previously laid a ceremonial wreath at the cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns, which contains the remains of unidentified soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. More than 300,000 people rest in peace at Arlington, including veterans from all of the nation’s wars – from the American Revolution through Iraq and Afghanistan. Biden said he’d met with a group of Gold Star Mothers at the White House earlier today. Gold Star Mothers is an organization of mothers who’ve lost a son or a daughter in military service to the country.
The Gold Star families “know all too well the price of their loved ones’ patriotism,” Biden said. “None,” he said, “should be asked to sacrifice that much.”
Biden observed that many people in the amphitheater possibly were awaiting the return of loved ones deployed overseas in harm’s way. Others, he added, may have waited in vain. “To those who have lost a loved one in the service of our nation, I recall a famous headstone in Ireland,” Biden said. “And the headstone reads as follows: ‘Death Leaves a Heartache No One Can Heal; Love Leaves a Memory No One Can Steal.’
“No one can steal the memory from you,” Biden continued. And the pain and heartache now felt by the survivors of departed military members, he said, eventually will “be replaced by the joyful memory of the son or daughter, husband, wife, father, mother that you loved so dearly, and lost.”
Memorial Day “is a day in which sorrow mixes with incredible pride,” Biden said. “We mourn those we’ve lost and we hold fast to their memories and we take pride – great pride – in the lives they’ve lived and the service they’ve provided.”
American servicemembers who serve and sacrifice on far-flung battlefields are motivated by love – not hate, Biden said. “Love is why we’re here today,” he said, “to show our love for the men and women who died showing their love for this great country and [to] honor their families who share that love even more deeply.”
Biden wondered aloud what previous generations of U.S. servicemembers might think of today’s world that’s been made smaller — and sometimes more turbulent — by globalization. “And as the world around us shrinks it means trouble halfway around the world can – and will – visit us, no matter how high our walls or how wide our oceans,” Biden said. “Our men and women in uniform know full well that the promise and the peril of this time have never been greater; the threats to American security are more widespread, geographically, than ever before.” Current threats to America, Biden said, include the spread of weapons of mass destruction and dangerous disease, economic dislocations, a growing gap between the rich and poor, ethnic animosities in failed states and radical fundamentalism.
Today’s generation of U.S. servicemen and women now “stands watch, protecting America’s interests against all of these new threats,” Biden said, “and it will take — and it has taken — equally great sacrifice as those who have gone before them.”
America has lost 4,391 servicemembers in Operation Iraqi Freedom and during follow-on operations in Iraq, Biden said, and 1,074 troops have died in Operation Enduring Freedom and follow-on operations in Afghanistan.
These departed servicemembers “were the best of us; they were our blood … and treasure,” Biden said. American force of arms, he said, has protected America’s freedoms and way of life since the nation was established. That will not change, he said.
And, as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, the U.S. government, Biden said, has “a sacred obligation to provide these warriors with everything they need to complete their mission, and everything they need – and I might add, deserve – when they come home.”
Today’s servicemembers, as were their predecessors, are “bright, educated and committed,” Biden said. And the source of America’s ultimate strength, he said, emanates from its values.
“In upholding our values, we’re made stronger,” Biden said, noting radical fundamentalists want “to change what we value, to change how we live our lives, to change what it means to be an American.”
However, America is defended by “the finest military the world has ever produced — period,” Biden said. And, America’s servicemembers at rest at Arlington and elsewhere, he said, have fought and sacrificed for their fellow countrymen.
“They lived with integrity; they served nobly; they gave everything,” Biden said. “They fought for what they believed in and maybe most importantly, they believed in something bigger than themselves.
“They believed in all of you, they believed in all of us and they believed in America,” the vice president said. “So on this day, this solemn day, let us strive once again to be individuals in a nation worthy of that belief.”
Lynn’s and Mullen’s remarks preceded Biden’s.
“We gather today to honor our fallen in a sacred place,” Lynn said. “Arlington Cemetery stands as one of our nation’s greatest symbols of the sacrifices made for our freedom and our way of life. We have carried our fallen heroes to these fields for 146 years.”
Arlington’s “rows of marble headstones,” Lynn continued, “are a testament to how one generation defends the next; to how our nation is built upon unimaginable heroism and sacrifice; and to how these sacrifices stretch from our forefathers to the present day.”
Less visible at Arlington, he said, are the sacrifices made by the surviving loved ones of departed servicemembers.
“For every fallen hero laid to rest there is a mother and father who will not see their child through life’s milestones,” Lynn said. “For most, there is a spouse who must live without the spouse they chose. And for many there is a child who will not have a parent to guide them.”
The sacrifices of war, Lynn said, ripple outward like water splashed by a stone. “So today we honor not only those who made the ultimate sacrifice; we honor all those who have shared the loss,” he said.
Servicemembers who’ve fallen in Iraq or Afghanistan are laid to rest at Arlington in Section 60. The people buried there represent every race and creed, Lynn observed, noting the headstones bear symbols of several religions.
“Their graves are topped by the cross, the crescent moon and star, [and] the Star of David,” he said.
Arlington’s fallen servicemembers “reflect the more perfect union they died to defend,” Lynn said. “In Arlington – like nowhere else – we can see freedom blossom and know its price.”
Mullen echoed Lynn’s sentiments.
“Every year since Civil War reconstruction Americans have set aside this day to pay tribute to service and to sacrifice,” Mullen said. “No place, more than Arlington, reminds me of what we owe them and their families for what they have given to us.”
Around the globe — on the land, on the sea and in the sky — generations of young Americans “have fought for each other, fought for their families and fought for us,” the admiral said. “Now they peacefully rest in cemeteries, unmarked battlefield graves and in the deepest oceans around the world.”
Each servicemember’s gravesite “enshrines a unique story and we remember the sacrifice, the humanity and the service each name represents,” the admiral said.
Mullen recalled that the famous World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle would often come upon letters from home, blank writing paper, photographs and other personal items belonging to servicemembers that were killed in action.
“I believe each story, each letter, each item they’d carried sends a powerful message,” Mullen said. “It’s not about how they died, but how they lived and what they cared for.” Times have changed, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are different than past conflicts, the admiral said, noting today’s troops may carry fewer physical keepsakes than their forebears did.
“But they will always carry and cherish the love of their family, the respect of their fellow citizens and an abiding hope for a safe return,” he said.
The admiral recalled what an Army corporal had written to his family in his final letter before he was killed in Afghanistan.
Mullen said the corporal wrote: “‘Know that you all are the reason that I am here and to give my life for that is nothing to me.’”
At Arlington, “centuries guard the stories of those who gave their lives; those who willingly sacrificed all that they carry,” Mullen said. “And such stories of courage, love and hope will be our continuous renewal, as grass comes through the freshly turned soil of Section 60.
“Our treasured keepsakes will be the lives we celebrate, every Memorial Day and every day of the year,” the admiral said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)