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Honoring Americas fallen heroes on hallowed ground
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One sure way to get in touch with a soldier’s sacrifice is to visit a cemetery.

Rural Cemetery in Stockton features fascinating tombstones, mausoleums and monuments.  But there’s also a simpler, more uniform section for our fallen heroes.  Lined up, as in so many spaces where veterans are buried, these remind us of the discipline and obedient dedication which led them, in the first place, into harm’s way, and finally, to pay the ultimate price.

Thirty years ago, I stood in Arlington Cemetery, awed and yet saddened to see row upon row upon yet-another row of identical grave markers.  Each one had its own story engraved in invisible script, on the hearts and minds of those whose testimonies may never be fully known this side of the grave.

But no memorial to fallen men and women in uniform - not even the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, nor that in Moscow, nor even the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials combined - have impacted my psyche like that of Gettysburg.  The battle’s history is so tragic, so full of pathos, so brutal and utterly bleak, all I could do is stand there in awkward silence.

Several years ago, I joined a group of eighth graders in an educational and inspirational journey to Washington, D. C.  There, we received an intensive dose of American history and beheld the great monuments, museums, and memorials which enshrine the heroes of the Revolution and what followed.

It was then that, for the first time, I set foot on that blood-soaked terrain.

As a fifth grader, I had tied for first place with a classmate in memorizing Lincoln’s famous Address.  At the time, I had absolutely no way of sensing the absolute horror of a war between people of the same nation, even of the same extended family.  In three days, 172,000 American soldiers attacked - and counter-attacked - in a relatively small area of hillside and meadow.

The town of Gettysburg counted with 2,400 inhabitants.  The battle left over three times that many dead - 7,500 men - and over 5,000 horses.  The gruesome task of burying the corpses left those left behind with profound emotional scars.  Over 27,000 are estimated to have been wounded (many of them doubtless dying painfully later) and over 10,000 missing in action.

Many trees died from the sheer volume of lead that choked off their sap.

Yet out of this morbid nightmare emerged new victories for the Union Army, which from then on gained the upper hand.  And out of this tragedy rose up inspired words which have echoed down through the decades, stirring hearts to gratitude and encouraging soldiers in the face of danger.

These words were delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on Thursday, November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.   He’d been invited by a wealthy patron who single-handedly made sure the dead would be honored with sacred ground.  

The benefactor, David Wills, invited Lincoln to play a limited role: “It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”     Lincoln’s remarks reveal how minor he did consider his role.

Yet these few sentences, scribbled on the train en route to the battlefield, capture the reverence and the profound gratitude we owe our fallen heroes.

Gettysburg Address reflects the cost
This is the text of the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

 “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on a great battle-field of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

 “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we cannot consecrate -we cannot hallow - this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.  (Thursday, November 19th, 1963)

One week from this Memorial Day, I’ll be standing at Ground Zero in New York City.  Lincoln’s prose will certainly come to mind, as it has since that blessed day I memorized his Address at the age of ten.  I’ll feel the welling -up of inexpressible grief at the realization, once again, of how horrible warfare is, of how cruel humans can be, and above all of how inevitable it seems that, despite our best efforts, prayers, deterrents and diplomacy, war will be part and parcel of an inhumane history until the very end of time.

I’ll feel the same way I felt in Volgograd, in Prague, in Auschwitz, on the mountain called Masada, and in a hundred funerals for victims of violence.

But I’ll always sense a special pride for our soldiers.  However we feel and whatever our opinion about the wars in which our country engages, we’ve got to support our men and women in uniform, and honor them in death.

As the popular country song puts it, “Sleep in peace tonight,”  because out there beyond the horizons of our secure patch of the universe, a soldier sits on watch, a tank crew moves through the sites of enemy weapons, and yet another young hero with dreams unrealized will fall, never to stand again.