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Memorial Day: When we salute America’s best

We must honor the courage in every generation

Published: Saturday, May 24, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

WASHNGTON – DeMatha High School, in the Washington suburb of Hyattsville, Md., is nationally known for its successful sports teams and, as an all-male school, its exemplary young men.

Everybody at DeMatha knows about the Looney brothers – Brendan, Steve and Billy. Tough competitors on the field. First-class nice guys.

And everybody in the DeMatha family knows about the sacrifice Brendan made for his country.

As we prepare for yet another Memorial Day with young men and women still dying far away in war or recovering from grievous wounds, it’s worth thinking about Brendan Looney and his best friend, Travis Manion, who epitomize love of country and selfless devotion to comrades.

They met as roommates at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and trained for war together. For years they were inseparable. U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion died fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2007. U.S. Navy Lt. (SEAL) Brendan Looney died 3 years later in a helicopter crash in Zabul Province in Afghanistan.

Today, they are buried side by side at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 60. Identical headstones mark the resting places of dozens of their fallen comrades all around them.

Travis’ father, Tom Manion, a retired Marine colonel, and Tom Sileo, a journalist, have written a gripping account of the remarkable friendship of these two heroes and their deaths.

“Brothers Forever” is a grim tale of today’s ugly brand of warfare, but it also pays homage to a courageous generation of men and women who went to a war that too few Americans know much about.

Two years after Brendan’s death, his widow, Amy, 31, challenged Americans to perform 10 random acts of kindness in honor of their fallen heroes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Her husband, who did many acts of kindness for people he met in Iraq and Afghanistan, proved, she said, that it is possible to be a warrior for freedom and an ambassador of kindness at the same time.

In 2011, President Obama commemorated Memorial Day by noting “the friendship between First Lieutenant Travis Manion and Lieutenant Brendan Looney reflects the meaning of Memorial Day: brotherhood, sacrifice, love of country. And it is my fervent prayer that we may honor the memory of the fallen by living out those ideals every day of our lives, in the military and beyond.”

After reading “Brothers Forever,” Robert Gates, who was secretary of Defense when Manion and Looney were killed, said: “Their story is one of extraordinary courage, sacrifice and love. It is a story of the price of freedom. All Americans should read it and understand the unimaginable debt we owe to such men, the best America has to offer.”

This month, Obama gave the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, to another brave soldier, Sgt. Kyle J. White. A radiotelephone operator, he fought for hours while wounded against intense Taliban fire in Afghanistan trying to save the lives of fellow soldiers in 2007. Obama said he embodies the courage of his generation.

This Memorial Day, we must remember the thousands of Americans who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan seriously wounded.

There is currently an investigation into whether medical care has been criminally delayed for veterans cared for by clinics and hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

We don’t know the truth yet – VA hospitals have had a generally good reputation. If delays have been routine, such a travesty must be ended immediately.

We must not let Memorial Day become a musty holiday marking mattress sales, the end of the school year, and the opening of swimming pools. We can’t think of it as a day of parades with fading photographs of soldiers who died long ago.

Memorial Day should be one of our most important, most vigorously celebrated holidays. It is a day of acknowledging our indebtedness to vital young men and women who fought, were injured, or died for this nation just as they began to know the promise of the good that life can hold.

We must honor the courage in every generation and salute the good such as Travis Manion and Brendan Looney.

Note to readers: Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune. Readers may send her email at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.

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