Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald
Memorial Day Observation, Riverside National Cemetery
May 30, 2016
Ron, thank you for that kind introduction and for your leadership of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA).
Congressman Mark Takano and Brigadier General Russell Muncy, thank you both for devoting for so many years to the service of this great Nation and to our Veterans.
Let me also offer a special word of thanks to some folks who do a simply magnificent job watching over Veterans resting in this beautiful cemetery: Pete Young, Director, Riverside National Cemetery; Paul Adkins, Riverside National Cemetery Support Committee Chairman; and Dan Smith, Riverside National Cemetery Memorial Honor Detail Chairman.
It is an extraordinary place of honor for those who have served in our Armed Forces. The team of professionals at our national cemeteries ensures a legacy of remembrance for the loved ones of grieving families. At every VA cemetery I visit, I am humbled by their willingness to serve our fallen heroes. They become so much more than employees. They are the bridge between the past and the present. Thank you for your service.
I’m so glad to join all of you this Memorial Day—Veterans whose service we will never forget, members of the Armed Forces, distinguished leaders of our Veterans Service Organizations, and Americans who’ve come to pay their respects.
And to the families of the fallen—those whose loved ones rest here in this sacred place—only those who have shared in your loss can truly, fully understand your grief. But I pray that you are encouraged by your loved one’s life, comforted by your fond memories, and sustained by your faith.
Today at Riverside and in national cemeteries around the country—indeed, in Veterans’ cemeteries around the world—we honor America’s sons and daughters, those who risked their lives for our Nation’s ideals.
In 1863, at a ceremony perhaps not much different from this one, President Lincoln reminded Americans to protect the values, the ideals, and the freedoms that Soldiers died for. At the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Lincoln said, “It is for us the living . . . to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
In Lincoln’s day, the unfinished work was preserving the Union and the inalienable rights of all people. Since then, American servicemen and women have been taking up the unfinished work of defending our country and preserving our liberty, freedom, and our opportunities for prosperity—in places like Belleau Wood and Meuse-Argonne, Normandy and Guadalcanal, Inchon and the Chosin Reservoir, the Ia Drang Valley and Khe Sanh, Tora Bora and Baghdad, and many, many others.
Servicemembers are defending our nation against threats to American ideals and democracy at this very moment.
And that’s what binds all those laid to rest in this cemetery. They stepped forward and answered the call to serve. Many fought for a land they would never return to, or for freedom they had never even fully experienced themselves. Regardless of their race or gender, they all fought for something greater than themselves.
Today, we remember them.
There’s so much history here, stories of great valor.
We remember World War II Army Veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Ysmael Villegas, who charged enemy foxholes during the battle of Luzon in the Philippines. He died one day before his 21st birthday. A native of Riverside, he was the first Veteran buried at Riverside National Cemetery when it opened in 1978.
We remember Air Force Flight Nurse Captain Lillian Kinkella Keil. Captain Keil was one of the most decorated women in American military history. She flew on 425 combat missions and took part in 11 major campaigns—including D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.
We remember Dr. Hackley E. Woodford, a Tuskegee Airmen flight surgeon, and Colonel Aaron Bank, founder of the Army’s elite Green Berets.
We remember Navy Yeoman First Class Melissa Rose Barnes—killed during the terrorists attack at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
And we remember Patrick Henry McMahon, who was rescued by then-First Lieutenant John F. Kennedy. You may recall that it was President Kennedy who said, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”
Remembering means more than calling the roll of the fallen, as solemn and noble a task as that it is. Remembering means honoring the unfinished work for which these brave men and women gave their lives.
And that was Lincoln’s charge to us in his remarks at Gettysburg, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . .”
Behind every marker is a story, a story of what it meant to be a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman at a particular moment in time. Of what it meant to be a father, mother, daughter, brother, sister, husband, and son.
That’s why on this Memorial Day—here at Riverside and Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina—VA is launching a new initiative, the Veterans Legacy Program. This program is meant to bring to life the stories of Veterans buried in VA national cemeteries through lesson plans, interactive maps, and video vignettes. Our goal is to ensure that you do not forget their stories and their sacrifice.
May God bless the families of the fallen, our missing Servicemembers, our Veterans, all those who continue to serve, and this great Nation.