Life hasn't been the same since my son, Travis Manion, was killed in Iraq. But even in the saddest of times, the strength of other military families is an inspiration.
I think about warriors like Marine Capt. Adam Brochetti, who served two perilous combat deployments to Afghanistan. In February, Capt. Brochetti found himself standing at the top of a mountain in Vietnam.
Adam flew halfway around the world to honor his uncle, Army Pfc. Frank Brochetti, who was 20 years old when he was killed on the Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) on April 8, 1972. Despite never getting the chance to meet his uncle, Adam has always felt a strong connection.
"There was never a time when Frank's name wasn't brought up, especially by my grandmother," Adam recently told me. "His death had an irrevocable effect on her that we could clearly see, even as young kids."
When Adam and his relatives finally reached the top of the Vietnamese mountain, they placed Frank's picture on its peak and shared in a moment of silence. Adam took a jar of earth home with him to give to his grandparents, a memento from the ground where their boy died.
With an all-volunteer military force, many Americans no longer share a connection with the nation's fallen heroes, veterans and military families. As only about 1% of the population serves in uniform, and little attention is paid to continuing post-9/11 sacrifices, incredible stories are often overlooked.
Army Master Sgt. Jennifer Loredo was serving in Afghanistan when her husband, Staff Sgt. Eddie Loredo, 34, was killed in a June 24, 2010, roadside bomb attack. After accompanying his flag-draped casket home, Jennifer summoned the willpower to explain the tragedy to her kids.
Today, the Gold Star wife and active-duty soldier helps other military families cope with tragedy and stress. Her own remarkable courage is an inspiring example.
After Army Sgt. Aaron Wittman was killed in Afghanistan on Jan. 10, the Washington Post headlined a Feb. 8 article "First U.S. casualty of 2013 buried in Arlington Cemetery." But to Sgt. Wittman's parents, who both served in uniform, their 28-year-old son was much more than a statistic.
"The importance of this young man's life was not that he was the first casualty of 2013," said Aaron's dad, Duane Wittman, an Army major now retired.
Like his parents, sister, brother and sister-in-law, Sgt. Wittman put on a uniform and dedicated his life to protecting others. After he was killed while fighting back during an enemy ambush, soldiers told the Wittmans that they were still alive because of Aaron.
Aaron's headstone was recently inscribed with the family's abridged version of a Bible verse: "Blessed is he who lays down his life for others."
Sgt. Aaron Wittman and Staff Sgt. Eddie Loredo were buried in the same section of Arlington National Cemetery as my son, where they are surrounded by their brothers and sisters in arms, as well as fallen heroes and family members from the eras of other conflicts.
No matter which generation gets the call, patriots have always been ready to serve. Because of their sacrifices, Memorial Day is a holiday of unparalleled significance for the nation. But if we want brave men and women to continue stepping forward, we must understand and appreciate what people like Adam, Frank, Aaron, Eddie, Jennifer and their families have sacrificed to preserve the freedoms we enjoy.
This Memorial Day, reach out in your neighborhoods and communities to honor your city or town's heroes and their families. Share their stories so future generations will understand the cost of freedom. Bring your families and friends together for a moment of silence, and put a face on those who have paid the ultimate price.