According to a Memorial Day history provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), honoring those who died in war reaches back to antiquity. From the Peloponnesian War, Athenian Leader Pericles offered this tribute: “Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone, but in the hearts of men.”

The VA highlights specific events since 1866 that culminated in the 1971 Congressional Act that made Memorial Day a national holiday. One such milestone was “Decoration Day,” which on May 5, 1868, was established by an organization of Union veterans to honor their fallen comrades. The idea of a “Decoration Day” was not new, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama of the Alabama Humanities Alliance, Decoration Day appears to predate the Civil War, and was an annual holiday that honored all ancestors, not just those fallen in armed conflict. This was a practice my own family observed, a ritual surpassed only by Christmas and Thanksgiving.

The loss of thirty-seven Americans and three citizens from other nations aboard United Flight 93 on September 11th, 2001, demands contemplation and remembrance on this Memorial Day. These forty do not fit into any previous historical template of professional soldiers, but the facts are irrefutable, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 fought back, counter-attacking terrorists and denying an enemy of the United States another aerial attack on an intended target in our Capital. Their attempt to make it home to their loved ones, beyond valiant and gallant, had an unintended but astonishing result. They did what our dedicated military forces could not. These friends, neighbors, fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters, became warriors for all of us, protecting uncounted, unknown, and grateful fellow countrymen in Washington, DC from sure death. They also saved our Capitol or White House from sure destruction.

As of this writing, the nation has lost 7,057 military and Department of Defense civilians since September 11th. On this Memorial Day, we will pause to reflect on these cherished members of our people, those once among us who gave everything so the rest of us could live in peace, freedom, and security, a security that was shaken by that day of fire.

I talked recently with a close friend I had served with in Afghanistan about the nature of the remarkable people on Flight 93. We talked about their sacrifice and agreed they were warriors and combatants, but obviously in a category set apart because history and circumstance thrust them into this role, not the conscious decision to raise their right hands and swear an oath to a profession of service. By choice or not, these forty still contributed to our freedom in a manner that should be honored by all people who aim to inscribe in the “hearts of men,” all that which makes us free.  

As for me, after spending twenty-four years in the profession, and given my family tradition of Decoration Day, my heart will honor on this Memorial Day the forty Flight 93 heroes, who, along with all the other combatants in this longest war and all wars have provided this precious gift of freedom to me, my family, and all our succeeding generations. I agree with the Somerset County Pennsylvania Coroner Wally Miller, who gave of himself so much to the Flight 93 families, “There were four American military veterans on the plane, but in my mind there were 36 other veterans on that plane as well. These people knew that they were pretty well doomed and for them to pull it together under unbelievable pressure to win the first battle of the war — incredible.” The VA says 1.1 million service members have given their lives in war. I count the heroes of Flight 93 among them.