This is my first time visiting the Abraham Lincoln
National Cemetery, and as I was driving through I thought to myself
that the staff and the volunteers who have made this possible should
feel very proud of the work they're doing - this is a beautiful
place for our veterans to come home to.
Among red maples and sturdy oaks, over 10,000 Americans
now lay here, resting peacefully under an endless Illinois sky.
They rest in silence. On a typical day, except for
scattered footsteps or the soft gurgling of a stream, I imagine
you could walk row after row of headstones without hearing a single
It isn't until you come across another visitor -
a widow watering the plant she brought for her husband; a little
girl planting a flag at her father's headstone; a mother shedding
tears on the wreath she will lay for her son - that you realize
something: In this place we have come to associate with the quiet
of death, the memories of loved ones speak to us so strongly that
when we stop and listen, we can't help but hear life.
And once a year on this day, in the fullness of
spring, in the presence of those who never really leave us, it is
life that we honor. Lives of courage, lives of sacrifice, and the
ultimate measure of selflessness - lives that were given to save
What led these men and women to wear their country's
What is it that leads anyone to put aside their
own pursuit of happiness; to subordinate their own sense of survival,
for something larger - something greater?
Behind each stone is one of these stories; a personal
journey that eventually led to the decision to fight for one's country
and defend the freedoms we enjoy. Most of the Americans who rest
here were like my grandfather, a WWII vet who volunteered after
Pearl Harbor, fought in Patton's Army, but was lucky enough to came
back in one piece, and went on to live well into his twilight years.
My grandfather never boasted about it. He treated
the fact that he served in the military like it was only a matter
And so it is easy for us to forget sometimes that,
like my grandfather, the men and women resting here, whose service
spans a century of conflict from the Civil War to the War in Iraq,
chose their path at a very young age.
These were kids who went to war.
They had a whole life ahead of them - birthdays
and weddings, holidays with children and grandchildren, homes and
jobs and happiness of their own. And yet, at one moment or another,
they felt the tug. Maybe it was a President's call to save the Union
and to free the slaves. Maybe it was the day of infamy that awakened
a nation to the dangers of Fascism. Or maybe it was the morning
we saw our security dissappear then the twin towers collapsed.
And at that moment, whatever the moment was, these
men and women thought of a mom or a dad, a husband or a wife, or
a child not yet born. They thought of a landscape, or a way of life,
or a flag, or the words of freedom they'd learned to love. And they
determined that it was time to go. They decided: "I must serve
so that the people I love may live - happily, safely, freely."
Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked that "To
fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with
all your might."
The Americans who lay here believed.
And when they waved goodbye to their families -
some for the last time - they held those beliefs close as they crossed
the ocean towards an unknown destiny.
And they made us very proud.
No matter how many veterans you may meet, or how
many stories of heroism you may hear, every encounter reminds you
that through their service, these men and women have lived out the
ideals that stir our Nation - honor, duty, sacrifice.
They're people like Seamus Ahern, who I met during
the campaign at a V.F.W. hall in East Moline, Illinois. He told
me about how he'd joined the Marines because his country had given
so much to him, and he felt that as a young person he needed to
give something back. We became friends and we kept in touch over
email while he was in Iraq. One day he sent me an email that said
"I'm sorry I haven't written more often - I've been a little
busy over here in Falujah." I had to reply "I don't think
it's necessary to apologize."
They're people like Major Tammy Duckworth, a helicopter
pilot with the Illinois Army Guard. Four months ago, she lost both
of her legs when a rocket was shot through the floor of her Black
Hawk helicopter over Iraq. And yet, last month she came to the United
States Senate to testify about ways we can improve the process of
rehabilitating injured vets, and as we speak she has already begun
training so that she can fly again for her country one day.
They're the people I had the honor of meeting at
Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. Young men and women who
may have lost limbs or broken their backs or severed their nerves,
but have not lost the will to live, or the pride they feel in having
served their country. They have no time for self-pity, but wish
only to recuperate as quickly as they can, and meet the next challenge.
It is this quintessentially American optimism that
stands out in our veterans. To meet these men and women gives you
a clear sense of the quality of person we have serving in the United
States Armed Forces.
No wonder, then, that when these men and women come
home from war, they return to parades and salutes, the arms of loved
ones and the waving flags of children.
But today, on Memorial Day, we also remember that
some come home in a different way. The news of their impending arrival
is delivered with a soft knock on the door. Their return comes with
the sound of a twenty-one gun salute and the lonely notes of taps.
I won't pretend that simple words of condolence
could ever ease the pain of the loss for the families they leave
behind. I am the father of two little girls, and when I see the
parents who have come here today to lay wreaths for the children
they lost, my heart breaks with theirs.
But I will say to those parents that here in Illinois
and all across America, other children and other parents look to
your children and their service as a shining example of what's best
in this land.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln took a moment
to sit down and personally write a condolence letter to a Mrs. Bixby
of Massachusetts after he had learned that she lost five of her
sons in battle. In that letter, the President wrote:
"I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage
the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished
memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be
yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."
Here on this hallowed ground and in ceremonies across
the nation, we choose this day to solemnly honor those costly sacrifices
- sacrifices that were made on the fields of Gettysburg, the beaches
of Normandy, the deserts of Iraq, and so many other distant lands.
It makes our hearts heavy; our heads bow in respect.
But amid the quiet of this spring day in Elwood,
we also hear life. And as we are called by the memories of those
who found the courage to lay down a life so that others may live,
we thank God for blessing us with the privilege of knowing such
heroic sons and daughters of America.