Remembering Wisconsin’s Losses On This Memorial Day

Provided by the Wisconsin National Guard


This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Regardless of how history weighs in on this campaign, it is an undeniable fact that Operation Iraqi Freedom transformed the National Guard from a strategic combat reserve into a primary combat reserve. In simple terms, the National Guard was called often and repeatedly to support missions in Iraq and the surrounding region. And the National Guard answered the call with honor, courage and sacrifice.

Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “We would not be anywhere close to where we are in terms of our execution of mission without the National Guard.”

The Army National Guard deployed more than 222,000 Citizen-Soldiers to support missions in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. The Air National Guard deployed more than 34,000 Citizen-Airmen. All told, more than a quarter million National Guard members deployed in support of this conflict.

Every unit in the Wisconsin National Guard, in whole or in part, has supported the Global War on Terror, and the majority of that support was directed at Iraq. Detachments, individual units, battalions and even an entire brigade would serve in Iraq during the course of combat operations there.

And nine of the 10 Wisconsin National Guard casualties during the war on terror occurred in Iraq.

Wisconsin lost more of its sons and daughters to the conflict in Iraq, of course, than just members of its National Guard. Between 2003 and 2011, 91 Wisconsin service members — active duty and reserve component — died in Iraq. The Governor and The Adjutant General of Wisconsin attended the funerals of many of those fallen Wisconsin service members. The Governor began hosting an annual Gold Star Family event at the executive residence in 2005, and that solemn tradition continues today.

It seems odd to consider that the Wisconsin National Guard’s first combat fatality since World War II was killed a little more than 19 years ago in a firefight in Baghdad. Time marches on, impassively.

But we are not impassive — we must not be impassive. Every holiday, families among us notice the empty chair at their tables, the absent smile at their gatherings. Birthdays are remembered, but perhaps not celebrated. And that loss, to some extent, is shared across the nation. We remember those who have given their last full measure of devotion in service to our country each year, in settings just like this in communities across Wisconsin and across the United States.

The crucible of combat forges its own kind of family. William Shakespeare wrote of a “band of brothers,” and there is an undeniable camaraderie amongst service members — particularly those who have served in combat, and especially those who served together in combat. Veterans often speak of their devotion to their fellow unit members — their battle buddies. For those of us who have put our own lives at risk to serve our country, who have faced the slings and arrows of the enemy, there is a special kind of affection for those who have known and faced the same dangers, very close to that shared between family members.

Perhaps this kind of camaraderie, this bond, was what inspired John McCrae to write the last few lines of his famous poem, “In Flanders Fields.” McCrae was a physician in the Canadian Army serving in France during World War I, and as he wrote this solemn poem, he kept looking at the fresh grave of his friend Alexis Helmer.

“In Flanders Fields” is written from the perspective of one who has fallen in combat, and the last stanza of the poem reverberates with a fierce, haunting encouragement to continue the fight.

“Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from falling hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Fields.”

McCrae expresses that need many veterans have felt to do everything they could for the people around them in combat — that strong desire not to let their buddies down.

And when the fighting is done, when combat has ceased, we continue to keep faith with those who are no longer with us. We remember what they died for, and what they lived for. We keep their memory alive in our hearts. We honor their service.

The price of liberty is high, and the cost is borne by relatively few of us. There is no treasure that can restore those we have lost as a result of the wars our country has fought. There is no way to measure the full value of the individual whose life was lost in defense of our nation. Those we remember on this day cannot be replaced.

And yet, as precious and priceless the lives of those we honor today, we must also remember that they served in the cause of something greater than themselves. Indeed, many were drawn to be part of something greater than themselves. Those of us who served and those of us who still serve understand that our lives and livelihood are put up as collateral to preserve our nation. For most veterans, circumstances aligned in such a way that our deposit was returned. But for many of our beloved comrades in arms, the bill came due.

Theirs is a sacred purchase that we dare not squander.

We all are part of that greater cause for which veterans put their lives at risk. We all make up the nation that many have died serving. We are part of what hundreds of thousands of men and women believed was worth fighting for, and what a new generation of service members still believe is worth fighting for.

I say again: We must not squander the payment others make on our behalf to defend and preserve this nation.

Old Glory, the flag of our great country, is made of different cuts of cloth. Different shapes, different sizes, different colors. And yet they are stitched together in such a way that they make something greater than just a collection of bits of fabric. They fit together in a way that represents something special, something exceptional. Something united.

We are the parts of that flag. We carry on the legacy of those who came before us. We bear the responsibility to continue to push our nation ever forward. Most of us will never be called to serve in uniform, but we can all serve by making this country worthy of the sacrifices made by those we remember today. They believed the United States was worth fighting for, and even dying for.

Let us not squander that sacrifice. Let us not break faith with our fallen.

Let us honor their sacrifice and their memory.

Thank you for allowing me the honor of speaking at your ceremony today. Have a blessed Memorial Day, and may God continue to bless America.