Sacrificed in service: On Memorial Day, remember those we have lost

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Memorial Day does not hit as close to home as it once did.

At the height of the Civil War and again in the peak years of World War II, fully 9 percent of the U.S. population was in the military. Today, the figure is just a fraction of 1 percent.

That means that at the end of the Civil War, when the observance previously known as Decoration Day was established, honoring service members who lost their lives for the country was very personal. Today, for many American families, the occasion can feel more like a history lesson and less like a vital aspect of our current affairs.

Honoring the distant past is a significant part of Memorial Day, of course, but the scope should be much broader. Servicemen and servicewomen continue to die on behalf of their fellow citizens. Each man and woman in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines knows that a day could come when they will face the ultimate test.

Although Memorial Day honors our war dead, Americans can also give thanks for those who have served at great risk and survived. Typical of that group are living recipients of the Medal of Honor. It is the nation’s highest award for valor in action against an enemy force and, as recently as this month, two men have been chosen to receive it.

On May 13, President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to former Sgt. Kyle J. White, an Army radiotelephone operator who was in a group attacked by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in 2007. Although he had been knocked unconscious by a grenade, when Mr. White awoke, he spent four hours aiding three soldiers, dragging them to cover and summoning help. One of them survived with Mr. White, who became the 14th recipient of the medal for service in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Last week, the president announced that Marine Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter, will become the 15th. Cpl. Carpenter threw himself on a grenade in an attempt to save a fellow Marine during a 2010 attack, also in Afghanistan.

Whether Americans spend today at local parades, in cemeteries or at picnics with neighbors and friends, we all can take a quiet moment to nod in respect to service members who gave their lives. It’s the best way to bring Memorial Day home.

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