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National Memorial Day Observance
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Arlington National Cemetery, Monday, May 29, 2000

General [Robert] Ivany [Commander, Military District of Washington], thank you very much for your very heartfelt and profound statement about the patriotism that all who are here display by being here, and thank you for your service. You have been an outstanding role model for all of our young men and women. President Clinton, Members of the Cabinet, Congress, the Joint Chiefs who are here today, U.S. Armed Forces, Janet [Cohen], distinguished guests, including the families of those whom we remember today and the proud veterans who stood with them, ladies and gentlemen.

This is a season of memories. In recent weeks, we recalled those who gave their all a quarter of a century ago in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Next week, we are going to dedicate a new museum in New Orleans that celebrates the fateful days of Normandy. Next month, we are going to mark the moment in time a half-century ago when a generation went to Korea and by their sacrifice demonstrated once again that, in those immortal words, that freedom is not free.

Well today, we gather to remember all the men and women who have fallen on the field of battle for this nation, and to renew the ideals for which they died. And as we walk among the hush of the graves that surround us, those silent sentries of weathered stone, our hearts swell with awe and with inspiration.

Here, we find more than the traces of heroes whose heritage we share. We find more than the reverence for those that have been lost. We find a timeless question. Why? Why did they give so much? What fired such passion? Such devotion? Such sacrifice?

And I think that the answer lies in the unique purpose of this majestic place. Here, Americans lay forever still for a single and a singular reason. They believed that our liberty should endure and echo forever. And their hope was so profound and so compelling that they were willing to purchase that legacy with their very lives.

So as we reflect, we see the true power and poignancy of the democratic experiment, the supreme expression of personal sacrifice for the public good. Those who rest here had a courage driven not by fear of a state, a dictator, or a regime, but by fidelity to a friend, a fellow soldier, and ultimately to a nation of liberty.

We can never turn back the unforgiving hand of time and reclaim the lives that fate has taken away. We can never fully thank those who gave that last full measure of their devotion on the field of battle. Nor can we lift the weight of loss or the ache of sorrow from their families and friends.

But it is in our power to bear witness to the great freedoms for which they stood and strived. It’s in our power to declare, in this sacred place for all time, the nobility of their sacrifice and triumph of their cause. It’s in our power to remind those who served, and those who serve still, that we are eternally grateful for the blessings of peace, security, and prosperity still rendered by their hand.

What each of the men and women whom we honor today deserve most is to have each one of us, as Americans, carry forth and defend the ideals in which they all believed. Freedom is their eloquent legacy. But it is also our perpetual responsibility. It’s the right that we receive at birth. It’s the gift that we tender to destiny.

As the historian Stephen Ambrose wrote of memorials such as these, "A memorial’s message is not just a remembrance of past sacrifice. It is a reminder to future generations that the torch of freedom is now theirs to carry, that the patriotism, the unity and the responsibility of war’s generations cannot be relegated to stone and mortar merely to remember, but that these are values to nourish and maintain in each generation."

Ladies and gentlemen, it is now my pleasure to introduce to you a leader who for most of the past decade has ensured that America has nourished and maintained freedom across the world. I think all of you appreciate that the mantle of the presidency, by necessity, compels one to make decisions that are inevitably, and literally, matters of life and death. There is no burden that weighs more heavily.

But the deliberations of this President in the most difficult and defining hours have always been grounded in two paramount considerations. What is the right and just course for America? And, how can we best ensure that our men and women in uniform prevail in their mission and return safely to their families and their friends? This President, I can assure you, has asked these questions with the greatest of care. And he has, without exception, answered these questions with the well-being of our forces paramount in mind.

It’s been my privilege for these past four years to serve this Commander-in-Chief. Ladies and gentlemen, it is now my pleasure to introduce to you the President of the United States, President Bill Clinton. [Applause.]