The first Memorial Day observances were spontaneous expressions of gratitude and remembrance from Civil War veterans for their fallen friends, organized by veterans groups in local communities. It was recognized as an official holiday after it became an honored tradition, one that remains today. Memorial Day is a time for families and communities to gather together in remembrance of those who gave their lives for our country.

The community-oriented nature of Memorial Day also helps us reflect in a more personal way on individual service members who gave their lives defending freedom. We’ve all seen photos of the row after row of identical white crosses on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. From afar, they appear the same, but they contain individual American names and the states from which they came, including Iowa. When you start to think of the people these crosses represent, you may wonder if a particular service member had someone waiting for him back home. You might think of that service member’s mother and the anguish she must have felt upon learning her son wouldn’t be coming home. Maybe there was a younger brother that looked to him for guidance and was left on his own. Memorial Day serves as a reminder that each of the lives lost was, in fact, a life.

There’s a temptation to get caught up in our own lives and take for granted the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf in order to preserve our way of life. If you think back to the founding generation, the dream of a nation built on liberty must have seemed nearly impossible. Still, our patriot Forefathers concluded that this dream was worth fighting for and took up arms. They risked everything and prevailed against all odds. Generations of brave Americans have followed in our Founders’ footsteps and given their lives to protect that unique and fragile gift of freedom. Memorial Day is an opportunity to not only contemplate the wars that have marked our nation’s history, but also to reflect on the individual sacrifices that have been made to preserve our liberty.

I’ve made it my practice to honor each Iowa service member that has died in Iraq and Afghanistan with a personal tribute in the Congressional Record. In doing so, I’ve learned something about each of these brave Iowans, including the families they left behind. One thing they often say is that their loved one was proud to serve, understood the risks and accepted them willingly. I’m proud that we have so many service-minded young people in Iowa. It’s a testament to the strength and character of our families and communities.

It’s in close-knit communities where the value of service is most ingrained. When service members leave for war, they know the people they’re fighting for. And, if they don’t come back, their loss is felt very deeply in their home towns. I was fortunate to grow up in such a town and to have a family that understood the importance of service. My father served in World War I and my older brother served in World War II. I have always looked to them as examples of selfless service. My mother was also a tremendous role model. She was active in the community, with the library, the PTA and the American Legion Auxiliary. She passed away on Memorial Day.

I’m proud of where I’m from and of how our community carries on the patriotic tradition of honoring our fellow Americans who gave everything in the name of freedom. Memorial Day is a time for quiet, personal contemplation. I hope all Iowans take a moment to remember those who have gone before us, and say a prayer for the men and women in uniform who continue risking their lives each day for this great country. God bless them all.

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