LTC Daniel J. Griego of the U.S. Army National Guard speaks at the Memorial Day Ceremony Monday at Guaje Pines Cemetery in Los Alamos. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY LTC DANIEL J. GRIEGO
U.S. Army National Guard
For most Americans, Memorial Day signifies the start of the summer season, as well as a long weekend filled with activities like swimming and barbecues. But that wasn’t the original purpose of the day celebrated on the last Monday in May. Memorial Day commemorates those who have lost their lives serving our country – unlike Veterans Day, on November 11, which celebrates all people who have served in the military. I make this distinction because myself, other service members and veterans I know, have been thanked for our service on Memorial Day.
The origins of Memorial Day are highly debated but since the end of the Civil War, when it was known as Decoration Day, the holiday has been marked by solemn parades and ceremonies and the placing of flowers on the graves of fallen service members.
The men and women who died for our freedom represent the diverse patchwork that is the United States of America. They were rich and poor; Black and white; male and female. They were from cities, farms and suburbs. They came from every ethnicity, background and political spectrum. In short, they looked like any of us.
Their one common characteristic is that they all took an oath to die for America if called upon.
The American Civil War is the conflict with the largest number of America military fatalities in history. In fact, the Civil War’s death toll is comparable to all other major wars combined. The deadliest of which were the World Wars, which have a combined death toll of more than 520,000 American fatalities. The ongoing series of conflicts and interventions in the Middle East and North Africa, collectively referred to as the War on Terror in the west, has a combined death toll of more than 7,000 for the U.S. Military since 2001.
In terms of the numbers of deaths per day, the American Civil War is still at the top, with an average of 425 deaths per day, while the First and Second World Wars have averages of roughly 100 and 200 fatalities per day respectively. Technically, the costliest battle in U.S. military history was the battle of Eisenborn Ridge, which was a part of the Battle of the Bulge in the Second World War, and saw upwards of 5,000 deaths over 10 days. However, the Battle of Gettysburg had more military fatalities of American soldiers, with almost 3,200 Union deaths and over 3,900 Confederate deaths, giving a combined total of more than 7,000. The Battle of Antietam is viewed as the bloodiest day in American military history, with more than 3,600 combined fatalities and almost 23,000 total casualties on September 17, 1862.
The nearly 1.3 million fallen solders included New Mexicans; our family and neighbors who have given their lives in service to our great Nation.
New Mexicans like SPC Daniel D. Fernandez, who was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on June 30, 1944. Fernandez grew up in nearby Los Lunas. He joined the U.S. Army from Albuquerque in 1962 and by 1966 was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam. During that deployment, he served as a Specialist 4th Class in Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), 25th Infantry Division.
On February 18, 1966, in Cu Chi, Hau Nghia province, his 16-man patrol was ambushed by a Viet Cong rifle company and forced to fall back. Fernandez and two others volunteered to follow a sergeant back to the ambush site and rescue a wounded soldier who had been left behind. After reaching the injured man, the sergeant was shot in the knee, and Fernandez took over command of the patrol. All five men were pinned down by heavy fire when a rifle grenade landed in their midst. In the scramble to get away from the device, Fernandez accidentally kicked it closer to the rest of the group. He then shouted, “move out”, jumped over the immobile sergeant and threw himself on the grenade. He was killed in the resulting explosion, but successfully saved the lives of his fellow soldiers.
Moving up to more recent times and the war on terror, there have been 90 casualties from New Mexico – 60 in Iraq and 29 in Afghanistan. New Mexicans have lost their lives.
We can ensure that the memories of these heroes and their sacrifices are not in vain. We can ensure that future generations understand the importance of service, sacrifice and honor. We can ensure through our own community service that our country remains strong, free and prosperous.
Memorial Day is a time when many wear or proudly display poppies, not as symbols of what was lost, but as reminders of living legacies.
As we gather here today, we are reminded of the words of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have this far so nobly advanced”.
Today, we are the living, and we are dedicated to continuing the work of those who have gone before us. We are dedicated to preserving the memory of our fallen heroes and declare our unending gratitude and support for their families.
So let us take this time to remember and honor the men and women who have given their lives for this great country. Let is reflect on their courage, their sacrifice and their dedication to a cause greater than themselves. And let us recommit ourselves to the cause of freedom, justice and democracy, so that the legacy of our fallen heroes will live on for generations to come.
We continue to mourn their loss, but most of all, we celebrate their lives.
Thank you, God bless America and God bless those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.