In service to the country

November 11, 2003

THE LETTER to the mother of the five soldiers arrived over the president's signature. Mrs. Lydia Bixby, of Massachusetts, lost two of her sons on the battlefield. Her sacrifice was great and the commander in chief was humbled by her loss:

"I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save," President Abraham Lincoln wrote on Nov. 21, 1864.

The eloquence of Lincoln's sentiments to this Civil War mother are a reminder today of the sacrifices of the millions of American men and women who have served in the U.S. military since the birth of the nation to the present day. Their service, however steadfast and faithful, has not always been recognized except in times of war or on the occasion of death. And yet they represent a group of men and women for whom the country owes a great debt. As towns and cities across the United States celebrate Veterans Day, families of a select group in uniform will be hoping and praying that their son or daughter, husband or father, sister or mother gets through another day safely on the roads and byways of Iraq.

Americans fought in seven wars before a day was set aside to officially remember their countrymen who died in uniform, and at that, it recognized those who served in "the war to end all wars." Americans have fought in almost as many wars since Congress, in 1926, designated Nov. 11 as Armistice Day to mark the end of World War I, in which 4,734,991 Americans served and 116,516 died. Years later, officialdom memorialized the holiday as Veterans Day. But it wasn't until 1954, after World War II, in which 16,112,566 served and 405,399 in uniform died, and the Korean War, which claimed 54,246, that Nov. 11 came to honor all those who served the United States in war, the living and the dead.

Until this year, 42,348,460 military men and women had served this country during war, from the American Revolution up to and including the Persian Gulf war of 1990 and 1991. Of those, 650,954 lost their lives in combat, from the Battle at Bunker Hill to the charge up San Juan Hill, from the fields in Gettysburg to the sands of Omaha Beach, from the Chosin Reservoir to the base at Khe Sanh and beyond.

Today, the men and women in uniform who are serving in Iraq should be uppermost in our minds. Nearly every day, they lose one or more of their comrades. In President Bush's drive to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and bring democracy to this vast desert nation of 20 million, at least 394 Americans have died, including 256 who have perished since the president declared an end to major combat on May 1. American soldiers may well be fighting there for years to come. Thousands have been injured in this war, and they, too, deserve our support.

In closing to Mrs. Bixby, President Lincoln's letter said he prayed that she would hold fast to "the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."

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