Memorial Day is one of the most sacred days of the year for our nation — and for me personally. As I reflect upon those our country has lost and those brave warriors whom I personally knew, I am reminded of the importance of not only honoring and remembering their service and sacrifice, but honoring them through action, by caring for the families they leave behind. This is not only the right thing to do, but it is also imperative for the preservation of our all-volunteer force and at the core of our character as a nation.
We would not be the America we are today without the service and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of brave men and women who were willing to fight, bleed and die when our nation called upon them to serve. We must honor our promises to them and never forget their families who sacrificed so much.
Since being sworn in as a member of the United States House of Representatives, it has been a key passion and priority of mine to care for the families left behind by our fallen heroes and my fallen brothers and sisters. Throughout my nearly 30 years in the U.S. Air Force, I have always been in awe of the men and women who have served alongside me, as well as the unspoken and spoken promises we have made to each other if we were to ever give the ultimate sacrifice.
Deeply emotional moments in my career involving the fallen and their families often play out in my memories as I reflect upon the true meaning of Memorial Day. Several years ago, when I was freshly promoted to brigadier general in the Air Force, one of my first duties was to serve as the accident investigation board president for an Air Force MC-12 reconnaissance aircraft that crashed on a mission over Afghanistan, horrifically killing all four crewmembers on board. I was humbled to personally meet with the families of the fallen airmen on multiple occasions to deliver the findings on how their brave warriors died. Another memory that will live with me forever is when I investigated an F-16 crash that killed the pilot. I will never forget briefing the pilot’s wife who stayed stoic, the father who shared his pride on how his son played offense and defense in high school football, and the mom and sister who I cried with as they learned the cause of the accident.
These families, their fallen heroes, and this experience lit a passion in my heart that has since been a priority for me as an airman, a congressman and as an American. I will never forget looking into their eyes and promising never to forget their fallen loved ones — my fellow airmen. As a wing commander at Ramstein Air Base, I became intimately involved with casualties as they flew through Ramstein on their way home to the country they died for. Later during my time in the Pentagon, I had no duty more sacred than presenting the American flag to surviving families during military funeral ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.
The best way I have found to honor my fallen brothers and sisters is to continue to care for their families in my role on Capitol Hill. Since elected, I have been clear that Gold Star families are a priority, and I will never forget their service or sacrifice. Gold Star and surviving families have a continual open door in my office, and my staff is consistently writing policies and creating opportunities to honor the fallen and their families. We are continuously working to improve the processes and procedures for which we handle casualties by examining ways to better care for families of the fallen, ensuring they are given opportunities, and finding ways to show how much we as a country care and will never forget.
As a nation, I ask that we reflect upon those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, pay tribute to the fallen and never forget the families they left behind. It is the least we can do to honor those who have died and to thank them. It was an honor to serve, but it is an even greater honor and responsibility to care for these families after their loved ones have left us.
To Gold Star families: My heart is with you on this sacred day — today and every day. We will never, ever forget your heroes because they are our heroes too, and you are our nation’s treasures.
Congressman Don Bacon represents the second district of Nebraska. He is member of the House Armed Services Committee, co-chair of the For Country Caucus and retired as a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force after nearly 30 years of service.
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