As I write this column, Memorial Day is two days away. We honor those countrymen and women serving around the world, including those wounded, injured and killed in action.

Across this great country, parades will move down Main Street and ceremonies will honor memories, so we will never forget. Upon the grave markers in thousands of sacred spaces, flowers will be placed.

In our hometowns, speeches will bring hope to our neighbors, including words like freedom, liberty and sacrifice. We will hear of heroic journeys. We will hear of lives interrupted. We will hear of those that only cry; they cannot talk about their combat experiences or the aftermath of bomb-fragmentary metal embedded in the flesh.

The flags will fly, photos will be taken and families will gather themselves for the graveside visit. In the core of every town, small or large, those who may in fact take a lot of things for granted will think at a deeper level for an afternoon. Perhaps they will ask why societies wage war? They may wonder what beckons our young men and women to that “call to service”? They may wonder why we engage the enemy in some far-away land, and why the cost of doing so is far more than just monetary?

I have been in Washington, D.C., twice this last month (May 2008). I am struck by the preponderance of memorials built so we may be reminded about our history; so many are war-related. Very near the Lincoln Memorial are four of them; all remind us of a war and the great toll paid of blood and money. We are moved with every visit. The Vietnam Memorial, that black marble wall of engraved names, evokes such an emotion in me personally, and I am drawn to tears just by approaching it. And when there for one more visit, I see others drawn to the power of this elegant and yet simple, sacred place.


I recall my recent visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There I found the part of war that many do not see. Broken warriors are healing and are surrounded by family; they are putting their lives back together. Yet some die and give what our leaders describe as the ultimate sacrifice.

I attended a USDA ceremony in D.C. held for those of us who volunteered our skills overseas and who agreed to do the kind of work not many others would do. We gathered as a family and talked about our experiences. A part of what we have cannot be fully described. Soldiers understand this lack of full description, and we are not ashamed. In D.C., we planted a tree in front of the Whitten Building, the USDA’s executive office. The tree is in honor of Thomas Stefani, a U.S. Forest Service employee who is part of our USDA family, having served as a USDA volunteer in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was 28 years old. He was killed in October 2007 by a buried roadside bomb. I did not meet him, but I am thinking about him today, and many others are, too.

I am thinking about family members living among us, especially those with husbands, wives, sons or daughters overseas in a battle theater such as Afghanistan or Iraq. I am thinking about the children who have a parent gone this weekend, and many other weekends, too. I often reflect to myself that sending a soldier in harm’s way deserves our careful consideration. We must know that family back home struggles through it, too. For 10 months, I watched soldier after soldier deal with family issues over the telephone and with e-mail; with this distance nearly halfway around the world, the problems are enormous, especially for young families not quite ready to live apart.

My good friend Maj. Chris Senseney of the USAF (our Commanding Officer at Bagram Air Field and my military boss while in Afghanistan) and his wife, Lara, just had their second child. They are moving to Golden, Colorado, where Chris will work on his Ph.D. in engineering. There are many, many of these kind of stories of some of our finest young men and women making huge contributions for our country, and now our country gives something back.

I remember Memorial Day two years ago (2006), standing as just one of a few civilians with thousands of warriors dressed in army combat uniforms and desert combat uniforms, on the flight line at Bagram Air Field. I wrote about that day. I wrote of the very large American flag held across the cargo bay opening of a C17 aircraft, after hearing Gen. Eikenberry talk about the task list that included keeping America free. Our finest young men and women – and some my age, too – gather in harm’s way to engage the enemy, whether clearly defined or asymmetrical. They do this in that country and many others around the world so that we, in our small towns, large cities and all spaces in between, can be safe, productive and prosperous.

We must never take any of this for granted; for if we do, we all fail. This summer, in memorials in D.C. and in nearly every small town, like mine in Alma, Michigan, we remember the soldiers.

Let us never forget. PD

By Mike Gangwer
USDA Adviser