From Bunker Hill to Heartbreak Ridge, their sacrifices merit great memorials

This Memorial Day, let’s learn something from the first famous person who died in combat for the United States. Then, consider the nonfamous ones who died the same day and ever since.

Joseph Warren was a prominent Boston physician. He was the man who, in April 1775, enlisted Paul Revere for the midnight ride to warn that the redcoats were marching toward Lexington and Concord. Warren came under fire in an ensuing ad hoc melee. Two months later, at the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Revolutionary War’s first pitched confrontation, Warren, by then commissioned a general in the Massachusetts militia, fought in the ranks of front-line privates and held his position against two redcoat assaults before falling under a third attack when he ran out of ammunition.

Though the colonial militia eventually was forced to retreat, its fierce defense took far more enemy casualties than the colonists suffered, an experience that played a big role in British generals’ repeated hesitance to sustain full-frontal attacks in subsequent battles. It can be reasonably argued that the colonists would not have won their freedom without that British caution precipitated by American courage at Bunker Hill.

Warren also left behind a stirring call to arms that expresses the spirit shown in virtually every American military death since then. After Lexington and Concord, Warren’s mother had urged him not to engage in combat again. He replied: “Wherever danger is, dear mother, there will your son be. Now is no time for one of America’s children to shrink from the most hazardous duty. I will either set my country free or shed my last drop of blood to make her so.”

Warren is justly remembered as a hero. So, too, were the 134 other militiamen who died with Warren at Bunker Hill, although only one of them, Maj. Andrew McClary, is usually listed by name in history books. Therein lies a lesson.

Those 134 others, like Warren, had mothers and children, wives, siblings, and friends whose grief was no less severe than that of Warren’s family. Their sacrifices for liberty were just as great. Their fears, courage, pains, and patriotism were likewise of no lesser note.

The same is true of the other 1,304,570 estimated U.S. combat deaths since that famous battle in Boston and of the thousands and thousands of deaths in training and other exercises. For every famous Quentin Roosevelt, Joseph Kennedy Jr., Glenn Miller, or Ernie Pyle (technically a reporter but treated as part of the platoons) killed in action, there have been tens of thousands of brave souls worthy of remembrance on more than just a tombstone or Pentagon record, but whose “last full measure of devotion” is publicly celebrated only in the aggregate numbers rather than by name.

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In Warren’s words, they did their “hazardous duty” and “shed [their] last drop of blood” for the cause of American freedom and honorable interests worldwide. It is easy to say the debt we owe them is immeasurable, but even things that sound trite can still be true. Yes: immeasurable, incalculable, and oftentimes, in conditions unfathomable to those of us safe in our homes.

Take a moment or several at some point today to say a prayer of giving thanks for their service. As Warren did, they went where the danger was and bequeathed to the free world a precious heritage.

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