The Eloquent Dead

It was originally called Decoration Day. In 1868 the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans led by Major General John A. Logan, established it as a day set aside for placing flowers at the graves of war dead. The first major observance of what came to be known as Memorial Day was held at Arlington National Cemetery in May 1868.  Two years later on the 30th of that month, Maj. Gen. Logan delivered an oration towards the end of which he said: 'Let us then all unite in solemn feelings of the hour, and tender with our flowers the warmest sympathies of our souls!  Let us revive our patriotism and strengthen our loyalty by the example of the noble dead around us.'

The noble dead of the Iraq war include numerous examples of selfless heroism and valor.  Here are a few of them:

Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith, B Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, earned our nation's highest award for 'acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty' on April 4, 2003 protecting his men from  company—sized enemy force.  The Medal of Honor citation for the Tampa, Florida native reads in part: 'Realizing the vulnerability of over 100 fellow soldiers, SFC Smith quickly organized a hasty defense consisting of two platoons of soldiers, one Bradley Fighting Vehicle and three armored personnel carriers (APCs). As the fight developed, SFC Smith braved hostile fire to personally engage the enemy with hand grenades and anti—tank weapons, and organized the evacuation of three wounded soldiers from an APC struck by a rocket—propelled grenade and 60 m.m. mortar round.  Fearing the enemy would overrun their defenses, SFC Smith moved under withering enemy fire to man a 50 caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged APC...'  From that exposed position he continued firing at enemy forces, killing at least 50 and defeating the enemy attack, until he was mortally wounded.  During that time many of his own wounded men were able to withdraw safely.  'Sergeant First Class Smith's extraordinary heroism and uncommon valor are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the Third Infantry Division Rock of the Marne and the United States Army.'

Sunray, Texas native Lance Corporal Aaron Austin served with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.  On April 26, 2004 terrorists firing AK—47s, other small arms and hurling grenades, attacked his company's position in Fallujah from three sides.  The situation was grim.  The Marines were in danger of being overrun.  L/Cpl Austin reacted by first helping evacuate wounded then leading fellow Marines onto a rooftop to set up a machine gun position.   The terrorists continued to advance.  With no regard for his safety L/Cpl Austin moved to an exposed position to throw a grenade and, as the official Marine account states, 'several enemy bullets struck him in the chest. Undaunted by his injuries and with heroic effort, he threw his hand grenade at the enemy on the adjacent rooftop.'  It hit its target and the terrorist attack was halted. Lance Corporal Aaron Austin was later awarded a posthumous Silver Star for gallantry in action on that heroic day in April.

Sergeant James Witkowski served with the 729th Transportation Company out of Fresno, California. On October 26, 2005 his unit was ferrying supplies from Balad to Kirkuk when it was hit by improvised explosive devices followed by a barrage of rocket—propelled grenades, mortars and small arms fire.  Sgt. Witkowski was returning fire with his 50 caliber machine gun when a grenade landed in his Humvee.  Without hesitation, he smothered it with his body and took the full blast.  Not only did he save the lives fellow Soldiers in the vehicle, he prevented the convoy from being forced to stop in the middle of the enemy ambush kill zone. A fellow Sergeant whose Virginia National Guard 1173d Transportation Company worked closely with the 729th said of Witkowski: 'He was such as hero. He was it. He's someone who joined after 9/11 to fight for his country, and he did, and he saved lives and he gave his own.'  Sgt. Witkowski became the second Army Reservist to earn a Silver Star for actions in Iraq.  (Here is an article on Sgt. Witkowski by Michelle Tan) 

Words are never sufficient in describing such deeds as these.  They cannot relate the lives of these heroes or all that they meant to their families, friends, loved ones, their fellow Soldiers and Marines.  But in their own way, they, the eloquent dead, speak to us with resonant clarity about duty, honor, perseverance and how we live our own lives.

The poet Wallace Stevens once wrote about 'the soldier of time,' interred with other war dead:

The shadows of his fellows ring him round,

In the high night, the summer breathes for them

Its fragrance, a heavy somnolence, and for him,

For the soldier of time, it breathes a summer sleep.

Surely the virtues embodied by these heroes are timeless.   

On Memorial Day we commemorate the noble and the eloquent dead.  There is sorrow, yes, but also great reverence and pride in these exemplary Immortals who gave their last full measure of devotion; in knowing that this great country produces such Soldiers and Marines, such Sailors, Airmen and Coastguardsmen. And there is inspiration that reverberates within our very beings, the call to revive our patriotism, to strengthen our resolve, to rededicate ourselves, to do everything possible to support our Armed Forces deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world in the war on terror and thereby honor their service and sacrifice. 

The bugler stands ready now and begins playing 'Taps.'  Its elegiac notes take wing, rising ever higher with our solemn prayers, burnished by sunset hues, ever upward: 'Rest in peace, Soldier brave, God is nigh.'

John B. Dwyer is a military historian and combat veteran.

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