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Memorial Day and the Price of Freedom

by on May 22, 2014 6:15 AM

About a month ago I had the honor of speaking to Penn State's Navy R.O.T.C. at The Naval Heritage Spring Ball.

Although the event took place at the very land-locked Penn Stater Hotel, the commanding officer, Captain Robert Clark, Lt. Chris Miller and I were brought into the ballroom with the same whistles and ceremonial entrance that we would be given if we were boarding a United State Navy vessel.

As this week's column deadline approached ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, I found myself looking back at that speech. In doing research for that talk I came across President John Adams' final speech to the United States Congress on November 22, 1800. In his speech, the president argued for building a strong military and a strong navy.

"While our best endeavors for preservation of harmony with all nations will continue to be used, the experience of the world and our own experience admonish us of the insecurity of trusting too confidently to their success. We cannot, without committing a dangerous imprudence, abandon these measures of self-protection."

Surely we wish we lived in a world free from conflict, but we do not inhabit that ideal world. We live in a place where there are potential threats; many known but far more that are unknown to us. To that end I am reminded of the lesson from Machiavelli in his treatise The Prince:

"Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed."

While that is obviously not still entirely true and is an over-simplification, it does speak to the need for vigilance and preparedness. The point of this nation's spear has always been a military made up of unselfish men and women. Some wars required drafts to fill the ranks, but today we are a military staffed by people who have voluntarily chosen a role as our country's defenders.

Our security in a dangerous world is dependent upon the service of committed people dedicated to defending others, mostly people they will never meet. As I stood in the Penn Stater that night I saw a group of young men and women who will become Marines, Navy Seals, will fly planes, jump out of helicopters, sail surface vessels or ply the oceans silently in our submarine fleet. There is a good chance that some will venture into harm's way.

To those outstanding examples of the best of this university and the best of our nation I said, "Hopefully by your very presence, you will deter those who would do our nation harm."

The commitment of every individual in our armed services to defend our country is unquestioned. That unwavering resolve is a clear signal to the world that we will always defend the ideals expressed so eloquently by the people who founded this ever-evolving experiment in democracy.

However, we must never be so naïve as a country as to believe that the mere presence of our military is enough to deter everyone. We have learned that lesson and ours is a world view that has been shaped by a recent history of terrorist attacks, and two hard wars in faraway lands.

Every day in the United States we enjoy the imperfect blessings of liberty that are the envy of billions of oppressed people around the world. The ideals first written into the founding documents of this country are so ingrained into our lives that we take them for granted.

But make no mistake; those ideals did not come easily. They came because of the countless sacrifices made by the people of our armed services, sacrifices as numberless as the stars in the heavens. Sacrifice of lives lost, or wounds both physical and mental that may never heal, are the stones upon which we have built our citadel for the world to see. Certainly our nation is not perfect, but it stands as a towering example to people around the world.

While we enjoy a three-day weekend that has become the unofficial start of summer, take a moment and think beyond what you want on your hamburger. Memorial Day may mark the mental transition to long sunny days, but it should mean more. Memorial Day's roots began in Boalsburg as women decorated soldier's graves in 1864 during the costliest and most divisive war in our history.

Remember that it has been the price paid by our fellow Americans across the centuries that has allowed democracy's light to shine on all who call this great land home. The summer sun still falls on a land gifted with the blessings of liberty promised to us and our posterity centuries ago — a promise backed by the people who have served, the people we should remember this weekend.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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