A common mistake is mixing Memorial Day with the honors and remembrance appropriate to either Veterans Day or Armed Forces Day.
Veterans Day is set aside for the honoring of all veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces. Armed Forces Day is meant for honoring those still serving in uniform. They are are not veterans until leaving the service. Memorial Day is set aside for the honoring all who died while serving in uniform.
Another mistake with Memorial Day is in forgetting to honor a group seldom mentioned on Memorial Day yet deserving of our nation's thanks and honor: Those who died on active duty while training for combat. That group has made the same sacrifice as those giving all in combat and has shown the same level of courage. Let me explain.
First, it's important to know the dangers involved in maintaining the military readiness necessary to deter the nation's enemies and win wars if deterrence fails. All who raise their right hand, particularly those who join combat arms and special operations branches, know they face the chance of death or serious injury in training.
From personal experience, my father and his brother (my uncle) were both in the service during Vietnam. My father served in Vietnam and was wounded during his first tour. His brother died while training for Vietnam.
During my own service in the Infantry over 29 years of both peacetime and combat deployment, I have personally known more friends who have died in training than combat. As a young Infantry lieutenant in the early 1990s on my second rotation at the National Training Center, I encountered my first experience of losing a good friend.
Lt. Bill Burke had been a fellow platoon leader in my first company. He died when a Bradley Fighting Vehicle rolled over on him while moving at night at the NTC. I also knew his platoon sergeant who died during the same accident with another vehicle rollover.
I was not far from where they died and went through the same shock I would later experience in combat. The first decade units rotated through the National Training Center, roughly one person would die in training each rotation. The realistic training was credited with saving many lives during Operation Desert Storm and other combat operations.
In my Citadel class of 1990, the first death in our class was when our classmate Capt. Milton Palmer died in Ranger School. He had been the first black battalion commander at The Citadel and a friend to all. This death was during an unfortunate incident that included three other fatalities.
Though many of us in the class of 1990 served in combat, particularly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Milton was the only military death our class suffered. Ranger School was tough and dangerous but helped create leaders who saved many lives in combat.
The training had to be realistic, and we all knew the dangers involved. I was involved in a near-fatal parachute accident the first time I attended Ranger School (spent much time in the hospital and in recuperation for a spinal disc compression but went back through the course and graduated two years later). The benefits of the training in defeating enemies and saving lives were beyond question, but that came with casualties.
I have written previously of those who were killed in combat operations with which I was associated, and I know those men and their families are remembered. In particular, men like Staff Sgt. Bullard and Sgt. Philpot, who were heroes in every way and the first men to die on South Carolina's Task Force Phoenix mission in 2007 and 2008.
On this Memorial Day, let's ensure we don't forget men like Lt. Bill Burke, Capt. Milton Palmer, my uncle Jimmy and so many others who gave their lives doing a dangerous job on our behalf. For most, it took the same courage to volunteer to be in a unit that trained and remained ready to deploy to combat. Death or serious injury could come during training, and in the act of serving in uniform, particularly in a combat unit, combat was always an immediate reality.
The unit in which Bill Burke and I served had spent many periods of time on division-ready force. This meant that we could be called back to the unit within hours and "wheels up" in 18 hours as a heavy arm of the 18th Airborne Corps. Bill Burke never saw actual combat but is the kind of hero we honor on Memorial Day.
On this upcoming Memorial Day, let us focus on honoring "all" those who died while serving on active duty. We should spend time remembering the heroes who gave all in combat in foreign lands. We should also spend time remembering those who made the same commitment to service and made the same sacrifice for our nation. Those who braved the training necessary to defend this nation and paid a price for our freedom.
As the Lord Jesus said: "No greater love hath man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends." Those who died in uniform, in combat or training, have laid down their lives for their friends and showed the greatest love. They deserve our thanks and honoring.