Memorial Day is about the cost of freedom, the meaning of sacrifice, and the responsibilities the rest of us have to those who died in our defense.

It’s unfortunate then that we can’t hear from the Americans who would best understand those things, the very people who the day is set aside for — the service men and women who have given their lives for our country.

But if we can’t talk to those who didn’t come home, we should listen to those who did.

The veterans who were fortunate enough to survive know what the others felt as they put on their uniform or stepped into battle for the first time. They know the hardships they endured, and the commitment to each other those hardships forged.

And through each day they’ve lived since returning home, the surviving veterans know just what the others gave up through their service.

First and foremost among those insights is that the ongoing preservation of the idea of America is a gift. The idea of America — that all men are created equal, and that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights — gives us precious guidance.

And while we often fall far short of that standard, we owe it to those who have given their lives in its name to try.

Richard Lincoln of Wayne is just one of many who carries with him the ghosts of war.

Lincoln served with distinction in the Army’s Italian campaign in World War II. He was part of the 88th Infantry — the Blue Devils — who spent 344 days in combat.

In 2017, Lincoln told the Kennebec Journal he remembered helping wedge dog tags into the teeth of soldiers’ bodies, a grim task necessary for making sure they would all be properly identified. Of war, he said with a heavy understatement, “It was just slugging it out. It’s a tough life being an infantryman.”

Cliff West of Winthrop, too, carries those ghosts.

A Marine, West survived the bloody battle for Peleliu Island, where the Americans faced a dedicated, dug-in enemy, and temperatures as high as 115 degrees. He fought at Okinawa, as well.

Still, it’s not his experience he thinks about all these years later. “I didn’t sacrifice,” West told the Kennebec Journal last year. “Others did.”

And there’s Rich Newcombe of York.

On May 17, 1969, a truck carrying Newcombe and six other soldiers through Binh Duong province in South Vietnam hit a mine. Five of the soldiers died instantly, while Newcombe and his best friend, both seriously wounded, were rescued by a helicopter crew.

His best friend died shortly after. Newcombe recovered and went on to live a happy, successful life.

“I now live in a beautiful part of the country, and will spend my remaining years thankful that you risked your lives saving mine,” he wrote in a letter that he hopes will find its way to his unknown rescuers.

Newcombe and his wife, the Press Herald reported earlier this month, celebrate May 17 every year. Every year, Newcombe breaks into tears.

“I hope my life was worth it,” he said.

That’s the central question the rest of us should ask ourselves on Memorial Day: Are we worth it?

Are we worth the sacrifice that has been made in defense of our freedom, prosperity and comfort?

After all, those sacrifices are made in the name of American ideals. The least we can do is live up to them.


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