From The Anchor, May 3, 2024

By Father Peter Scheffer

Father Scheffer is pastor of Our Lady of Grace, St. George and St. John Baptist Parishes in Westport. He is a graduate of West Point’s Class of 1983 and U. S. Army Ranger School and is a retired Army Infantry Lieutenant Colonel and a combat veteran of the Global War on Terror.

Every Memorial Day, we gather to honor and to pray for all those who have made the supreme sacrifice, those who have died in the service of this great nation. May their examples inspire us as we also pray for our men and women in uniform who are currently engaged in war (on land, at sea, and in the air) while deployed throughout globe. 

I’m sure that many of us may recall from our childhood History Classes that Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day. It was established to honor those fallen in battle during our nation’s Civil War. However, today Memorial Day honors those who have died in the wars that have taken place since the Civil War.

As a Combat Veteran – Memorial Day is very up close and personal for me. On this day especially, I remember my final view of Afghanistan. It was at 11pm on the night of October 1st in 2005 at Bagram Air Base. As the military bus (on which I was a passenger) was transporting forty-four of us to our USAF C130 Hercules aircraft on which would begin our journey home, we drove by a fully illuminated USAF C17 Globemaster. Its tailgate was down and around the aircraft was a full military Honor Guard. As we passed by, I noticed that inside the C17 were about a dozen or so caskets that were draped with US Flags. It’s a scene that comes to my mind each and every Memorial Day. Like I did that night in 2005, I ask myself the same questions even today:

Who were these fallen heroes and where were they from? How and when did they die? How old were they? Who do they leave behind? Mothers? Fathers? Brothers? Sisters? Wives? Husbands? Children?

To this day, I think about their families who received the news of their deaths. And then, like any survivor of war, I asked myself the same question that all survivors of war ask:  Why them and not me?

As a man of faith – I understand that only the good Lord knows the answer to this question. As a Catholic Priest, I do not believe in mere coincidences; rather, I know that God has His reasons and though I may not understand them – I do not question them. But as retired, career Army Officer – I also know that it’s imperative to always remember those fallen men and women who I passed by on the night of October 1st in 2005 – most especially on Memorial Day.

We owe these (and all) fallen heroes – and the families who mourn them – our gratitude for their sacrifices and our prayers for their eternal repose. Yes, to remember those who have died in war means also to commit ourselves to the cause for which they died. To honor their memories, we too must also be resolved to serve our country in some way, to safeguard its promise, and to accept responsibility for its destiny. As President Lincoln spoke in his Gettysburg Address: “that these dead shall not have died in vain.” This we do through assuming the responsibilities of good citizenship, and by putting the common good ahead of our own private self-interests. President Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg still challenge us today. He said: “…(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.

Our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ both taught us, and showed us that to lay down one’s life for a friend is the greatest love the world will ever know. It is the capacity to transcend oneself, to make a gift of oneself to and for another. Our God-given rights and freedoms are not about having the ability to do as we please; rather, they are about choosing to do good in ways which are pleasing to Him. It means that we can and do assume responsibility for our actions, in striving each day to be people of virtue and never choosing to do evil. 

As Americans, we honor the sacrifices of those who died in the service of our nation and whose sacrifices have won for us the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. May the souls of all the faithful departed, especially those fallen in the service of this great nation, through the mercy of God, forever rest in peace. ~Amen

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