The true meaning of ‘memorial’

Posted May 29, 2011, at 4:22 p.m.

Monday we honor one of our nation’s great traditions — Memorial Day. It is a custom that began shortly after the American Civil War almost 150 years ago. It is one day for us to remember all of those who have fallen in service of this great nation. Yet today, as we are distracted by our mobile phones, 24-hour breaking news and a seemingly endless stream of information, our question is: Have we forgotten to remember?

Recently our nation experienced a momentous victory with the death of Osama bin Laden thanks to the brave and coordinated efforts over several years of U.S. intelligence and military forces. In the immediate aftermath of the news, we sounded a message loud and clear: “justice done, promise kept.”

But have we forgotten something else? While justice may have been delivered, nearly 10 years ago we also promised that the nearly 3,000 innocent people killed on Sept. 11 would always be remembered. What of that promise?

Today a completed memorial proudly stands in the shadow of the Pentagon welcoming thousands of visitors each year since opening in 2008. At ground zero, an elegantly designed memorial is funded and prepared to open this September. But a memorial in Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 crashed in a peaceful field, is neither fully funded nor fully constructed. Until that is accomplished, our promise to those lost on Sept. 11 remains unfulfilled.

As Flight 93 was en route from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, hijackers took control of the airplane, setting a course toward the nation’s capital. Over the next 35 minutes, 40 passengers and crew members became aware of the hijackers’ sinister mission. Within moments they united, making the bold and selfless decision to re-take control of the plane, at all costs. Their struggle lasted only a few minutes before the plane crashed in a remote area, far from any densely populated locations.

But just as important as what happened onboard Flight 93 that day is what did not happen. The plane was only seconds from hitting a school, attended by 400 students. It was only 18 minutes in flight time from the U.S. Capitol, the likely target, where thousands of people work every day. Yet, thanks to the courage of 40 men and women — thousands more were saved. Today, a bronze plaque in  the East Rotunda of the Capitol lists their names — but nothing more. No story of their bravery, no information about who they were, no mention of the loved ones left behind.

The men and women of Flight 93 were not trained in combat, battlefield tactics or operational strategy. They were not Navy SEALs, soldiers or generals. They were 40 ordinary people that in a moment became extraordinary heroes — and delivered us our first victory in our war on terrorism. With their treasured lives, they deprived bin Laden of a target and signaled to all the world that we will  pay any price for our freedom.

So we ask this Memorial Day, will the men and women of Flight 93 be remembered? Will they be honored alongside our nation’s other heroes that have saved countless lives and stood as beacons of pride and courage for their country? Until we finish the funding of the Flight 93 National Memorial, the answer to this question remains in doubt.

American soldiers, sailors and aviators are united every day, in every mission, by a common bond — that no individual is to be left behind. Yet, today we are at risk of leaving behind 40 men and women on their final battlefield and resting place in Shanksville, Pa.

Help us to complete the Flight 93 National Memorial. Whether an individual or organization, we ask you to visit www.honorflight93.org and give what you can. Thanks to the Richard King Mellon Foundation, your contribution will be matched dollar for dollar up to $1 million.

May we honor the bravery of generations of heroes this Memorial Day and, with your contributions, let us keep our promise to the heroes of Flight 93. Let us remember.

Tom Ridge served as the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and was governor of Pennsylvania from 1995 to October 2001. Tommy Franks is a retired U.S. Army general and served as commander of U.S. Central Command from 2000 to 2003.

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