By Thom Little, Ph.D.

On the Friday before Memorial Day, as I returned from the gym, my wife greeted me with two requests: please empty the dishwasher and pack a bag for three days! As someone who has been married for almost 35 years (happy wife, happy life), I did what was asked. In fifteen minutes, I was in the passenger seat of our car, and we were on the interstate. Five and a half hours later, we pulled onto a side street three blocks from the US Capitol and headed into an Airbnb. Still clueless, it is not until Saturday morning when my two adult daughters arrived from the airport that I realize that we are there to attend the National Memorial Day Concert, a longtime “bucket list” item of mine! Planning this for more than a year, my wife got me good!

Gates opened at 5:00 pm on Saturday for the 8:00 Concert- we were in line by 4:30 and by 5:15 we were seated just behind the VIP section! Promptly at 8:00, hosts Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna started the concert. The songs, the monologues, the videos- all were moving and inspiring tributes to the millions who have served to preserve this 250-year-old democracy that we live in. However, for me, just as it is when I watch the concert from my recliner at home, the most moving parts of the concert were the segments where actors portray those who served or lost loved ones in the service of our nation. Following the monologue, they greet the servicemember and/or family members in the audience. Perhaps it is because these stories remind me of those told to me by my grandfather and hero, the late PFC Charles Hamilton, who was injured on January 31,1944, in the Battle of the Bulge as a member of Patton’s Third Army.

The first segment told the story of 96-year-old World War II veteran John T. “Jack” Moran who, like my grandfather, fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Private Moran fought across France and Germany, losing almost 100 fellow soldiers from his unit in just six days of the campaign. Dropped directly into the middle of the Battle of the Bulge, he and his fellow soldiers were charged to keep the Germans from breaking the US line at Bastogne. For six days his unit, trapped behind enemy lines, fought bravely- only a few made it out alive, including Private Moran. Returning home, he dedicated his life to service, telling his story regularly to young people, “Making it out alive means you are here for a purpose.”

The second story recognized Gold Star father Allen Hoe, a Vietnam veteran who lost his son in Iraq. Like his father before him, Army 1st Lieutenant Nainoa K. Hoe volunteered to serve his country, serving as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He fell victim to a sniper attack while leading his men on a mission in 2005. Actor BD Wong, voicing Allen Hoe, told how his son’s men grieved the loss of their fallen commander in the hospital, supporting him until the end. A father’s unimaginable loss inspired a commitment to healing the wounds of war and recognizing the sacrifices of the soldiers and their families, “Each year on Memorial Day, I pause to remember the young men and women whose lives were cut short by saying their names and sharing their stories.”

The final monologue recognized the terrible injury and inspiring recovery of US Marine Corps veteran and amputee Kirstie Ennis. In June 2012, during her second deployment to Afghanistan, the helicopter Ennis was in made a crash landing during a sandstorm. Sergeant Ennis sustained a traumatic brain injury, full facial trauma, shoulder damage, spinal injuries and severe wounds to her leg. After more than forty surgeries, her left leg was amputated above the knee. But that is only the beginning of Sargent Ennis’s story. Just six years after the near fatal crash, Kirstie Ennis competed in the Paralympics as a snowboarder and is currently ranked fifth in the world. Since then, she has scaled the tallest mountain on each continent, with her eyes now set on Mount Everest (she came within 200 meters of the peak in 2023). She has also created the Kirstie Ennis Foundation, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to using outdoor activities to help differently abled people reach their full potential, “Someone took a shot on me and it’s pretty damn selfish for me not to pay that forward.”

So, what do we do with these inspiring stories? I would suggest that they should inspire us, all of us, to do whatever we can to preserve this 250-year-old experiment in self-government and that might mean doing the right thing even when (and perhaps especially) if it is not the easy thing. I ask that you remember these and all who have sacrificed for us to live in this nation.

For those elected to serve, when you want to think about tearing down the institutions that are necessary for a strong democracy (a free media, a strong legislature, an independent court system and a responsible executive) for short term political gain, REMEMBER Jack Moran.

When you choose to support someone not because they are the best candidate, but simply because it may gain you votes or support, REMEMBER Allen Hoe and his son, Lieutenant Nainoa K. Hoe.

When you cast a vote or bring forth a bill not to improve the lives of the people you serve, but simply to embarrass members of the opposing party, REMEMBER Sargent Kirstie Ennis.

When you think about casting a vote or making a decision not because it will improve the lives of those you are elected to serve, but because it will get you more clicks or 30 seconds on Fox or MSNBC, REMEMBER my grandfather, Charles Hamilton.

REMEMBER that as an elected official, you are elected to serve the public- all of the public- not just those who elected you or those who agree with you- Staff Sergeant Moran, Lieutenant Hoe, Sergeant Ellis and Private Hamilton- and millions of others who sacrificed in service- deserve nothing less.