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National Memorial Day Observance
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, DC, Monday, May 31, 1999

General [Robert] Ivany [Commander, Military District of Washington], thank you for your very eloquent and moving and poignant remarks. We truly appreciate them. President Clinton, Secretary [of Veterans’ Affairs, Togo] West and Mrs. West, members of the Administration and Members of Congress who are here, General [Joseph] Ralston [Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff] and Mrs. Ralston, General [Michael] Ryan [Air Force Chief of Staff], General [Dennis] Reimer [Army Chief of Staff], members of the United States Armed Forces, Janet [Cohen], distinguished guests, the families of those who have sacrificed all for America, and the proud veterans who stood with them -- you are the living memorials to your fallen comrades and we're honored by your presence; and ladies and gentlemen.

Memorial Day is a moment of celebration and sadness. We rejoice in our freedom and prosperity that is unmatched by any the world over. But if you wind your way through this hallow ground, we are profoundly moved by the sea of stones, white as the wings of doves, by the haunting serenity of taps that echoes down and touches us in the very center of our souls. They take us to a place in our hearts where there are wounds that can never quite heal and where our grief must be gathered up like garlands in the arms and warmth of family and friends.

The historian Stephen Ambrose has written about America's citizen soldiers of World War II, many of whom now rest here in blessed tranquility. He said, "they knew the difference between right and wrong, and they were unwilling to live in a world where wrong triumphed, and so they fought and they won, and we and all succeeding generations are the eternal beneficiaries of their sacrifice."

The same must be said all who have fought in every conflict before and since that time -- soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines and Coast Guardsmen. All have been unwilling to sit on the sidelines of history and witness dictators and demagogues crush the voices crying out for freedom.

That's the reason that we're here today in this sacred place, and why we gather in every city and small town across America: to remember the sacrifice of our heroes, to celebrate their patriotism, to mourn their loss, to give thanks to those who in the high noon of their youth gave their green for all and forever so that we and our allies might still drink from the fountain of liberty.

And so today we remember heroic lives, known and unknown, braves souls lost in battles past and present. Braves souls such as the two Army aviators lost this month in the Balkans, one of whom now rests in this hallowed ground. We remember and we reflect not merely on the memory of their loss but on the meaning of their lives. They whisper to us in the stillness of our reflection: freedom, opportunity and prosperity are precious blessings; they were not left to you in perpetuity, they were not gained without great sacrifice by us, and they will not be preserved without purpose and without valor by you. We must never forget their undying expectation of us and our unending obligation to them.

This spirit, this shared duty between past and present, was captured well by another great jurist and soldier on another Memorial Day in another century. Justice Oliver Holmes Jr., a great warrior and a great jurist, looked into the eyes of his fellow veterans and he spoke words which ring with vibrancy and relevance to all generations. He said, "Our dead brothers still live for us, and they bid us think not of death but of life, of life to which in their youth they lent their passion and glory of the spring. As we listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the orchestra of seen and unseen powers, amid the destinies of good and evil, our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, of hope and of will."

Ladies and gentlemen, it's now my pleasure to welcome a leader who knows that among the greatest tributes that America can pay to the lives and legacy of our fallen heroes is to care for the heroes who have inherited their mantle and who walk among us today: our veterans, to be sure, and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. Upon them rest the hopes of a nation. Within them lies the will to prevail in their ongoing missions across the Atlantic and beyond. And leading them is a Commander-in-Chief upon whom they and their families can depend, within whom lies the conviction to see the struggle in the Balkans to its right and just resolution.

It has been my privilege to serve with President Clinton. It is now my pleasure to introduce to you the President of the United States, Bill Clinton. [Applause.]