Memorial Day is a Time to Teach Our Children About Real Heroes
Monday marks the sixteenth Memorial Day since our military went to war after the 9/11 attacks.
During a recent drive home from school, my six-year-old daughter began to sing.
“And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free,” she sang. “And I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me.”
My little girl went on to explain that she was learning the words to the song (Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”) in preparation for her kindergarten graduation ceremony. During that special moment, I was filled with both patriotism and pride.
Monday marks the sixteenth Memorial Day since our military went to war after the 9/11 attacks. While the national media’s collective eyes have been largely transfixed on the White House and Kremlin for the past six months, U.S. troops have been killed in action during combat operations in five countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.
Five Fallen Heroes
U.S. Navy Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Kyle Milliken, 38, was one of those American heroes. Earlier this month, he was killed while fighting the al Shabaab terrorist group “in a remote area approximately 40 miles west of Mogadishu,” Somalia, according to the Department of Defense. The Navy SEAL is the first U.S. service member killed in the African nation since the well-known “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993.
According to the Portland Press Herald in Milliken’s home state of Maine, the high school and University of Connecticut track star joined the Navy in 2002 before earning his place inside the now-legendary SEAL Team Six. He would go on to perform dangerous missions during deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and eventually Somalia.
“We were a nation at war when he enlisted,” U.S. Navy Special Warfare Command spokesman Jason Salata told the newspaper. “He has four Bronze Stars. You don’t get that from sitting at home.”
According to the Hartford Courant, Milliken is survived by his wife, Erin, and their two children.
“His sacrifice is a stark reminder that naval special operators are forward doing their job, confronting terrorism overseas to prevent evil from reaching our shores,” U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Timothy Szymanski said in a statement published by the Courant.
In April, our nation lost U.S. Army 1st Lt. Weston Lee, 25, who made the ultimate sacrifice in Mosul, Iraq, along with U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar, 37, Sgt. Joshua Rodgers, 22, and Sgt. Cameron Thomas, 23, all of whom were killed in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province. In the last six months, brave American troops have also died in Syria and Yemen.
All of these fallen heroes had families, friends, and long lists of awards and accomplishments. Despite all they had to live for, these patriots were still willing to trade their lives to protect not only the warrior standing next to them on the battlefield, but people back home who they had never met.
The genuine, astounding selflessness of those who make the ultimate sacrifice is the essence of Memorial Day. That’s why when my daughter finished singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” in the car that day, we had a discussion about both the dangers and heroes of war that I hope other parents will have with their kids as the school year ends and the summer begins.
“God Bless the U.S.A.”
On May 22 in Manchester, England, happy young girls not much older than my little girl were singing along with pop star Ariana Grande. Minutes after the concert ended, a crude, vicious bomb often found on Middle Eastern battlefields pierced the innocent lives of teenagers and children. ISIS claimed responsibility for the cowardly, sickening attack, which cannot be labeled as anything other than pure evil.
My daughter wandered in from another room and looked up at the television as I watched news coverage of the Manchester attack. I could see the confusion and fear in her eyes as they were briefly filled with the searing images of terror.
“That’s why those brave men and women we talked about go to war,” I told her. “They fight the bad people to keep them away from us.”
“I know, Daddy,” she said. “It’s just like the song says.”
A few days later, my little girl graduated from kindergarten while singing those same patriotic lyrics.
“And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today,” she sang. “Because there ain’t no doubt I love this land. God bless the U.S.A.”
Because of American heroes like Kyle Milliken, Weston Lee, Mark De Alencar, Joshua Rodgers, Cameron Thomas, and thousands more who have put service above self, our children grow up in a land that is not only free, but vigorously and righteously defended. For that, all Americans owe all fallen heroes and their Gold Star families our deepest thanks on Memorial Day – and every day.
Tom Sileo is co-author of the forthcoming 8 Seconds of Courage: A Soldier’s Story from Immigrant to the Medal of Honor (Simon & Schuster, November 2017).