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Berger’s Burg: On this Memorial Day, honor the fallen who served the U.S.

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Here in the Presence of Washington and Lincoln, One the Eighteenth Century Father and the Other the Nineteenth Century Preserver of our Nation, We Honor Those Twentieth Century Americans Who Took Up the Struggle During the Second World War and Made the Sacrifices to Perpetuate the Gift Our Forefathers Entrusted to Us: A Nation Conceived in Liberty and Justice. — National World War II Memorial Announcement Stone

On May 31, we celebrate Memorial Day in honor of our soldiers who fought and died in our wars and saved America in doing so, but it is disturbing that the ultimate sacrifice given by millions in uniform is taken for granted.

My earliest remembrance of a fallen soldier occurred when I was young. Our neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Topolnicki’s only child, John, was called into service during World War II. During a furlough, he married a local girl and was sent overseas. Nine months later, she bore twins. The parents, who could not read or write, brought John’s letters to us to be read and answered.

One day, they received a telegram which they asked my mother to read.

“They probably promoted John,” Mrs. Topolnicki beamed.

My mother delicately opened the envelope. John had been killed in action. “I have something in my eye,” my mother said and gave the telegram back to the Topolnickis. A few minutes later, screams filled the halls of our tenement building. John’s wife quickly remarried and moved away.

I recently came across the text of a speech the noted Mr. Anonymous never made. I want to share it with you:

“I am standing at the podium, seated behind me are various dignitaries and notables … behind them are the service flags. They are dwarfed by a large national flag. In honor of Memorial Day, it has been raised to full staff then lowered to half. In front of me are rows of chairs, family members, veterans, and people who want to honor those who have served. Somewhere, in the back, a child, the voice of our future, cries. Behind me are row and row of graves, uniform white stones, names, dates, military service and a religious symbol. I am the Memorial Day speaker in a National Cemetery. I was never asked to do this but, if I was, this is what I would say.

“Ladies, gentlemen, and special guests, we are here to honor sacrifices and those who made it so that we, as a nation, may prevail. I would like to start by recognizing some very special guests, the 15,000 who ‘stand’ behind me and who have honored our country by their service and this place by their presence. Service members come in all colors, and not the ones we typically use to categorize people. They come in Air Force blue, Navy and Coast Guard white, Marine Corps khaki, and Army green. Some wear the oil stained dungarees of the Merchant Marine. Some are men. Others, increasingly so, are women. The single common thread lies in the phrase starting: ‘I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully defend,’ and ending with ‘so help me God.’

“Some went willingly, some were called, all went. Some saw combat, some only the rear areas, some never left the states … all went where ordered. Some made it a career, most didn’t. Some achieved high rank, most didn’t … all gave more than was asked. All are here because this is where they wanted to be … once again, they have chosen to join.

“Some served in the infantry, others in ships, aircraft, or supply dumps. Some were cooks, mechanics, tail gunners, clerk typists, electronic techs, military police, ship fitters, drivers or any one of a thousand specialties … they went where they were sent.

“Some were college graduates, others didn’t finish high school, most were somewhere in between. The service is a great leveler, all served alike. Some loved the military, others hated it ... all were changed by it. They may not remember their car license, but I suspect that all remember the name of their TI [training instructor].

“For most military service was a ‘temp job,’ something to be done before moving on to other things. They entered a thousand different professions, they built careers, they built families, they built this nation. Now they are eternally young and they are back. They have taken their final salute and now they are at rest.

“Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. Some earn medals for great bravery, for making heroic sacrifices in horrible circumstances. All I’m told are ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I’m also told that the real heroes are those who did not come back. I believe that. I also believe that most didn’t want to die, to leave families and loved ones; they did what they had to do. I’ve been told that fear is normal and that some handle it better than others. I believe that. I believe that all here have felt fear at some time but all went on and did the job. I believe that those who rest here have served honorably and they all gave some, and some gave all. That makes this place a place of heroes.

“I believe this honorable service also applies to the families who waited and worried and feared the telegram and/or military visit. One does not have to wear a uniform to be a hero.

“There could be no better place to spend this Memorial Day in this company. Before you leave, take a walk; look at the names and symbols on the stones. If you like, try to figure the ancestry, but remember that, most importantly, they are all Americans and they served us well. To them and those coming afterward we owe eternal gratitude. When you leave this place, come back to visit. Our honored guests, joined by their comrades, will be waiting. As I say, I was never asked to speak but if I had been, this is what I’d have said.”

Contact Alex Berger at timesledgernews@cnglocal.com.

Updated 5:57 pm, October 10, 2011
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