Memorial Day is our country’s most somber holiday, reminding us of the men and women who have died protecting the freedoms we hold dear. As a veteran myself, I believe every veteran who lived through combat and is still alive today feels a little bit of guilt when we think back on our fallen friends and fellow service members. We do not get to choose what war or battle we fight — you are sent where you are needed. Some have served in dangerous places and incredibly difficult circumstances. Three of my own very close friends died in Vietnam, one on his very first day. Every generation has seen wars that have taken some of our bravest service members.
The moment I was drafted still lives on in my memory. It was 1971, I was 26, living in Memphis, and I went to get the mail like I did every day. On this day, however, I received a letter notifying me that I had been drafted to serve during the Vietnam War. My draft number was 27 so I knew immediately it was only a matter of time before I would be called up. I was originally set to serve in Vietnam, but at the last minute my orders changed, and I was sent to Camp Casey in South Korea, just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). I sometimes wonder if it was not for that change if I would still be alive. This thought strengthens my resolve to honor these heroes.
Memorial Day is an appropriate time to remember and honor those who left their mark on us while they were among the living. One hero, my scoutmaster First Sergeant Thomas E. Thayer, made a powerful impact in my life. I think of him when I reflect on Memorial Day because I learned so much from him about leadership and responsibility. He died while serving in the Army’s 101st Airborne in Vietnam in 1965 and was awarded the Silver Star for his service.
During the Vietnam era, our military was not treated with respect and honor. Since then, attitudes have changed and our nation once again treats our service members with the recognition and treatment they deserve. Earlier this year, I attended a site dedication ceremony for the National Desert Storm and Desert Shield War Memorial, a memorial that will honor the 383 heroes who lost their lives in these operations, and the roughly 600,000 service members who served in the region at the time. This conflict marked the turning point of our country’s attitude towards service members, and I am very proud to have led the efforts to help secure a memorial location on the National Mall, near our other battlefield monuments honoring veterans of World War II, and both the Vietnam and Korean Conflicts.
On Memorial Day, I also think about the veterans we have lost due to service-connected ailments like exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliate used during the Vietnam era. Countless of veterans have died because of Agent Orange exposure, and far too many of these veterans did not receive the benefits and treatment they needed. That’s one reason I’m so passionate about passing the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, which will ensure veterans who served in the offshore waters of Vietnam receive the benefits and support they earned. Just last week, this bill unanimously passed the House once again, and I hope the Senate will act quickly to get this legislation to President Trump’s desk.
Let us also not forget our POW/MIAs who have not returned home. These are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who never returned to their families. Repatriating the remains of the service members we have lost is one of our most sacred obligations. I will never forget the time I was sitting on an airplane in the Ronald Reagan National Airport when the pilot asked everyone to not get up while they removed the remains of a soldier in a casket. Not one person on that airplane moved.
Just last weekend, I was proud to take part in the Mountain Home National Cemetery arch dedication ceremony, which now greets visitors to the cemetery with the inscription, “Where Heroes Rest.” I could not have said it better myself, and I could not be prouder of those who have served. This coming Monday, I ask every one of you while you are enjoying the day with your family, take a moment to say a prayer for the men and women still in harm’s way serving our country and reflect on our freedoms and the sacrifices that have been made to secure them.