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John Smith of Papillion touches the wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in May 2017.

The author is an Omaha trial lawyer and a Vietnam War combat veteran. This is the 38th year he has written a Memorial Day article for The World-Herald.

Monday is America’s day to remember. It’s much more than a holiday. It’s a holy day of obligation because our country has made a solemn promise to honor, in perpetuity, the memory of those we sent to war and who never made it back.

With their deaths, these servicemen and women earned the indelible right to be remembered, and deserve the right to be honored. They believed in the promise of their tomorrow, but when they died, all their tomorrows were extinguished. If we fail to remember them, we will extinguish their past, as well. All they did and all they gave will be lost forever in the blur of history.

We veterans worry that the meaning of Memorial Day is being diluted, that it is becoming a secular celebration of the present and not a memorial to all those who have made us so proud of the past. We worry that what is happening is a self-induced case of national amnesia, erasing the primary purpose for which this holiday was dedicated. For too many Americans, it has become a self-indulgent celebration of the moment or an excuse to break out the grill. While beaches, barbecues and family vacations are part of our national culture, America, after all, has all summer for that.

On Memorial Day, our veterans’ graves should be alive with flags and flowers. Instead there are tens of thousands of gravesites that are undecorated and unattended. Many boast that they know the purpose of this day yet simply pay lip service to the memory of our soldiers instead of really thinking about the magnitude of their service. What a shallow and antiseptic way of observing this holiday.

Those soldiers are much more than names and statistics. They were real live American boys who deserved to live but had to die. They were shot to death, stabbed to death, beaten to death or tortured to death. At Pearl Harbor, oil still drifts to the surface from the USS Arizona, a reminder of all the seamen and sailors who suffered horrible deaths in all the oceans of the world.

How can we forget that they shed real blood, suffered terrible wounds and still fought like hell before they died? Then when they were gone, their personal effects and dog tags were put in a box and sent to their families. All of them deserve the right, earned the right and were promised the right to be kept alive in our nation’s memory.

When we sent them off to war, they were afraid of being killed or wounded, being missing in action or being labeled a coward. What they feared most was that their suffering and sacrifice would go unnoticed, their bravery would be forgotten. They had to fight these fears just as hard as they had to fight the enemy.

When I went to war, I shared these fears. I tried to be a good soldier. Yet there were other soldiers whom I was in awe of and trusted with my life. They were tougher and braver than I was and better soldiers than I would ever be, yet I survived, and they did not. How could I ever forget these men?

In two World Wars, our soldiers liberated the countries of Europe from evil, put an end to worldwide genocide and avenged Pearl Harbor. It was our soldiers who preserved a free South Korea and kept Southeast Asia from being imprisoned behind an iron curtain. More recently, they ousted brutal and fanatical despots from the Middle East. We owe them all. They never disappointed us, so how can we disappoint them? What they did should echo in eternity.

In liberated Europe during World War II, a village official told an American officer, “I have seen a lot of soldiers, but your soldiers are different. American soldiers walk like free men.”

In our country, it is the soldiers and not the politicians nor the pundits who have given us freedom of speech. It is the soldiers and not the newspaper giants or cable news networks who have guaranteed us freedom of the press. It is the soldiers and not the preachers, priests or rabbis who have provided us with the freedom to worship as we choose.

We should remember that it is the soldiers who served under the flag and whose coffins were draped with the flag who have turned that flag into a beacon to the world for all people who dream of living free.

If you really wish to understand how Memorial Day should be observed, then go to that shiny black wall in Washington, D.C. Then watch battle-scarred veterans gather in front of the names of soldiers chiseled into that wall.

You will see men with a debt to repay. They are there to honor, to cry, to pray and to remember a soldier. Watch as they quietly kneel, unable to say what they feel. They hope only to reflect and to heal from the loss of a soldier. All of the tears on their cheeks and faces will tell you the message of this special place and that our nation can never replace the precious life of a soldier.

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