The somber observance of Memorial Day has its roots in the Civil War, and the day is especially poignant for many Minnesotans who lost loved ones in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. But recent news from Iraq and Afghanistan makes clear that the sacrifices continue, reinforcing how important it is to honor not only those who previously served our country, but also those who currently do as well.
First came the May 18 report that an Afghan suicide bomber had killed five U.S. service personnel, putting the death toll for Americans in Afghanistan above 1,000.
Two days later the Minnesota National Guard announced that about 2,700 members of the Bloomington-based 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, are likely to be sent to Iraq and Kuwait next year. It would be the biggest deployment for the state's citizen-soldiers since World War II. Post 9/11, there have been more than 20,000 Minnesota Army and Air National Guard deployments, according to Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, who is quick to reassure Minnesotans that well over 10,000 members will still be available to fight floods in the Red River Valley or fight fires in the Arrowhead region.
Many of those being deployed are doing multiple tours. Brigade Commander Col. Eric D. Kerska, for instance, who will lead the 1st Brigade Combat Team, has already served twice in Iraq.
"For anybody that has a civilian career, the sacrifice is enormous," Kerska said. "Losing a year of being a father or mother is a big deal."
It may be even tougher for the family of Kerska's brother-in-law, Sgt. First Class Steve Sarvi, because two members -- Sarvi and his 19-year-old son -- are both likely to be deployed. "It adds a different dimension to it," Sarvi said.
But both Kerska and Sarvi point out that Guard families may need help, but they don't need sympathy. "The main thing is not to pity the families," Sarvi said. "It's in the middle of deployments when they really need you, when it's not new, and yet it's not light at the end of the tunnel."
Both said the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon organization, as well as Minnesota's elected officials and everyday citizens, offer a lot of help.
"The support from the state has been incredible from the governor, the first lady, and right on down through local communities and churches and local organizations. I can't say enough about that," Sarvi said.
Memorial Day is very personal for Sarvi. "Things changed for me in 2006 when one of my soldiers died in a vehicle accident in Iraq and another was badly wounded in an IED (improvised explosive device) attack," he said. "When I drive by those cemeteries and see those flags and see the sacrifices others have made before me, it's always struck me very deeply in my heart. I'm glad to be able to do my part to honor their service."
For Kerska, Memorial Day "reminds me of those who did not come home. For those deployed before, few days go by that you don't remember the faces and the names of those that didn't get to come home with you. So I encourage time spent not so much in front of the barbecue, but thinking about what some of their citizens have done with very little recognition."
Both Sarvi and Kerska want us to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but on this Memorial Day weekend we should not forget those Minnesotans currently serving in uniform and the huge sacrifices we've asked -- and are about to ask again -- on behalf of our country.