By Father Curtiss Dwyer
Our Memorial Day was originally known as “Decoration Day,” an opportunity to decorate many graves of the over 600,000 men who died in the Civil War. It was, by far, our nation’s costliest war in terms of human life, about two percent of the entire population. Today, that would translate into 6.5 million people. Memorial Day honors all who have died in military service to our country since its inception. But why should we, as a nation and as Catholics, remember something so … grim?
It was September 2006. The rooftop was sweltering. Three U.S. Navy SEALs were in an “overwatch” position on a Ramadi home with two Iraqi soldiers. It had been an eventful morning, but it was quiet at the moment. From below, without warning, someone lobbed a grenade. It bounced off Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor’s chest, and then clattered on the deck. Penned together, all five were easy prey for the grenade’s deadly spray of shrapnel. At point-blank range, it couldn’t miss.
Monsoor yelled, “Grenade!” and made a snap decision that would mark him for all time. He flung himself onto the device, smothering it with his torso, just in time to absorb the blast. The result was predictable: he lived only 25 minutes before dying of his injuries. His companions escaped with only scratches and minor wounds.
Because of the configuration of the rooftop, only one of the five men had a pathway of escape, had he chosen to use it: Yes, Michael Monsoor. For his stunningly self-sacrificial action, he received the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military honor, posthumously. As is written in his official Navy Summary of Action, “Monsoor’s actions that day could not have been more selfless or clearly intentional.”
I tell recently commissioned Catholic Marine officers the story of this heroic Navy SEAL. And I ask them who, further back in history, perfectly embodied a sacrifice that “could not have been more selfless or clearly intentional.” The answer of course: Jesus Christ. What Our Lord did to save us could not have been more selfless or clearly intentional.
We know from his official biography that Monsoor “devotionally” attended Mass prior to his missions. He was a man who intentionally sought to integrate his faith with his daily life of military service. How many times did he hear the words following the consecration, “Do this in memory of me”?
It is inconceivable that those who survived the rooftop blast would forget Monsoor’s sacrifice. Their very lives are a testament to what he did to save them. Likewise, the Church’s entire devotional life is about remembering – calling to mind some aspect of the paschal mystery, meditating upon it, being present to it, making it present to us.
Memorial Day is an opportunity, as a nation, to remember and appreciate those who have died so that we might live freely.
Father Dwyer, a priest of the Archdiocese of Denver, Colo., is a U.S. Navy chaplain assigned to the Marines in Quantico, Va.