Georgia Army National Guard Honor Guard Specialist Ronnie Reddish stands at attention during the Memorial Day ceremony at the Marietta National Cemetery on Monday, May 29, 2017. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM.

Opinion: Honoring soldiers’ ultimate personal sacrifice

On May 28th, our nation will observe Memorial Day. This is a day for honoring, and remembering America’s departed soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. It is an opportunity for us to contemplate with a grateful heart the sacrifice of the fallen and to rekindle the memory of those whose service and sacrifice continue to keep America safe and free.

More than one million American service members have died in the wars and conflicts of our nation since the first citizen-soldiers took up arms in 1775 to fight for independence. More than 5,000 of our fallen service members have made the ultimate sacrifice during overseas combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Our Georgia National Guard family honors 42 service members who have fallen in service to our country since the beginning of the Global War on Terror. The memorial wall at the Georgia National Guard headquarters in Marietta enshrines the names and faces of those fallen who represent members who fell while serving with Georgia National Guard units. These fallen citizen-soldiers represent a cross-section of society. They were members of the military, their community, and devoted parents, spouses, sons or daughters.

Georgia National Guard soldiers such as Spc. Mathew Gibbs of Ambrose, Spc. Joshua Dingler of Hiram, and Sgt. Paul Saylor of Bremen joined the National Guard while still in high school or immediately after graduation and had just begun their military careers. Others, such as Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Willoughby of Phenix City, Sgt. James Kinlow of Thomson, Sgt. 1st Class Charles Warren of Duluth, and Maj. Kevin Jenrette of Lula had served in the military for up to 22 years. Many had served during the Persian Gulf War, among them Sgt. Charles Gillican of Brunswick and Sgt. John Thomas and Sgt. Ronnie Lee Shelley, both of Valdosta.

While military service united the 42 fallen, many served in the community as well. Sgt. 1st Class Victor Anderson was a deputy with the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department. Sgt. David Randall Jones Sr. was a deputy for the Richmond County Jail, and Staff Sgt. Alex French IV served with the Bibb County Sheriff’s Department. First Sgt. John Blair of Plainville was a former Gordon County Sheriff’s deputy and detective.

They left behind spouses, parents and more than 80 children. Soldiers like Spc. Jacques Brunson of Americus and Sgt. 1st Class John Beale of McDonough brought their love for their children to the children of Iraq and Afghanistan in the form of gifts such as pencils, coloring books, or just a smile. While serving in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Robert Hollar of Thomaston corresponded with students of Crescent Middle School in Griffin and shared his experiences with them.

As you travel around the state and nation you will find tributes to Georgia’s fallen. A portion of Highway 81 in Loganville bears the name of Sgt. Michael Stokely, as does a section of road in Coweta County. Highway 36 East in Lamar was renamed in honor of Master Sgt. Davy Weaver of Barnesville. In 2010, the National Guard Bureau dedicated the Sgt. Jeffrey W. Jordan GED Plus Complex at Camp Robinson, Arkansas in honor of the fallen Georgia Guardsman from Cave Springs.

By sharing a small measure of the life experiences of our fallen service members, I hope that I have made it easier to envision the enormity of their sacrifice and the sacrifices of all of our service members. As Abraham Lincoln observed at Gettysburg, “… from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion … that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people … should not perish from this earth.”

Maj. Gen. Joe Jarrard is adjutant general of the Georgia National Guard.