One hundred and forty-six years ago, at the end of America's Civil War, the most devastating conflict in our Nation's history, mothers and grandmothers of the fallen—blue and gray—gathered, in cemeteries large and small, to pray and to enshroud the graves of their loved ones with flowers. From Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from heartland to mountaintop, these hushed, mournful visits by the bereaved were an all too common sight.
General Joshua Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, was so moved by one such scene that he promoted the need for a day of national memorial observance. And so, on 5 May 1868, he proclaimed May 30th as a national day for the "strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country."
His general order 11 reads: "Let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us, a sacred charge upon a Nation's gratitude, the Soldier's and Sailor's widow and orphan."
Consistent with Gen. Logan's order, two children of Civil War Veterans are still alive today and receiving survivor benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
America's military presence in Alaska actually predates Gen. Logan's general order of 1868. Elements of the U.S. Army's 9th Infantry Regiment were on hand to witness the change in sovereignty when the Stars and Stripes were raised over Sitka, Alaska, in October 1867.
To honor those who died on duty in the new Alaska Territory, a cemetery, established in Sitka in the late 1800's, was officially recognized as a national cemetery in 1924.
Then almost 20 years later, well within the lifetimes of many of the Civil War's orphans and some of its widows, 39 acres of Fort Richardson were set aside to inter the remains of both victor and vanquished of the Second World War—officially adding this beautiful cemetery to our national cemetery system.
American, British, Canadian, and Russian war dead lie here in final rest. And nearby, the remains of Japanese soldiers are also interred. Amongst our most faithful citizens buried here is Staff Sergeant James Leroy Bondsteel, U.S. Army, from Jackson, Michigan. On May 24, 1969, while serving with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 2d Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, Platoon Sergeant Bondsteel distinguished himself while serving near the village of Iang Sau, Republic of Vietnam.
His exemplary leadership and great personal courage, through four hours of battle, ensured the success of his own and nearby units and resulted in saving the lives of numerous fellow Soldiers. By individual acts of supreme bravery, he destroyed 10 enemy bunkers and accounted for a large toll of enemy killed, including two senior enemy commanders. His indomitable courage earned him our Nation's highest award for valor—the Medal of Honor.
Such is the measure of courage, selflessness, and devotion to duty of the fallen whose names are forever memorialized here, and in cemeteries like this one all across our country and around the world.
This Memorial Day, people are gathering in towns, villages, and cities, wherever the American flag is hoisted as national standard, to remember our war dead, pay homage to their courage and sacrifice, and honor the selflessness with which they did their duty so that our republic would be preserved.
This year, as in years past and for years yet to come, the Department of Veterans Affairs greets, welcomes, and embraces the thousands who gather in our 131 national cemeteries to give thanks and remember.
The quiet and ordered beauty of these places, so lovingly rendered by the men and women of the National Cemetery Administration, reflect both the cost of defending freedom and liberty and the Nation's unwavering gratitude for the sacrifice of its noblest citizens.
From generation to generation, across our history, Americans have answered the call to duty. The America we know would not exist today were it not for those who loved freedom and cherished liberty enough to fight for it.
Our country has been blessed with an abundance of such men and women, who have allowed us to flourish as individuals, as a society, and as a Nation.
In his Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln spoke of America's obligation to repay our debt to those who died in service to our country: "It is for us, the living … to be dedicated … to the unfinished work which they, who fought, … have … so nobly advanced ... Dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion."This Memorial Day, 2011, let us all reflect on the more than one million Americans, who have given such "devotion" in America's name, the more than 140,000 of our sons and daughters who endured captivity at the hands of the inhumane and despicable, and those still missing, whose families bear the even greater burden of never knowing.
America's 22 million living Veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs honor the service and sacrifice of all our fallen, who have guaranteed our rights and secured our liberties.
Thank you all for joining us today. May God bless the memories of those buried in this special place, may God bless the memories of all who gave life for country, and may God ever bless our great and wonderful Nation.