Opinion: Remembering how Ga.’s military fallen lived

05/28/2021 — Canton, Georgia — Nancy Louise Graham, 73, leans in to kiss the headstone of her late husband, U.S. Army veteran James E. Graham, at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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05/28/2021 — Canton, Georgia — Nancy Louise Graham, 73, leans in to kiss the headstone of her late husband, U.S. Army veteran James E. Graham, at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

GUEST COLUMN

Every Memorial Day, I take the 14-mile drive from my home to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta to honor the bravest soldiers I have ever known. It’s a tradition that began after I returned home from Iraq decades ago.

I joined the National Guard when I was 17 to put my gratitude into action. Born and raised in Mexico, I moved to South Georgia and graduated from Albany High School. This country gave my family and me the opportunity to achieve the American Dream. My enlistment was the least I could do for a nation that helped me realize my full, God-given potential.

Doraville Police Chief John King was named to replace suspended Georgia Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck.
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Doraville Police Chief John King was named to replace suspended Georgia Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck.

I served in the Guard for years, rose in ranks, and eventually became the Commander of the 108th Armor 48th Infantry Brigade. For six months, we trained at Ft Stewart and the Mojave Desert in California, and then deployed to Iraq.

During the year I spent in the Middle East, we saw plenty of combat. As a cavalry unit, we were the “boots on the ground” working around the clock to defeat Al Qaeda-inspired insurgents and advance the cause of democracy.

As the commander, I was responsible for 1,200 Georgians. These men and women were true American heroes who volunteered to serve, to sacrifice, and put it all on the line for the nation they loved.

While proud of what we accomplished on the frontlines of this conflict, I saluted six caskets draped with American flags as they were loaded onto a C-130 aircraft and sent back home for a proper service and burial. I lost six soldiers in 2006 and their names are etched in my heart.

In Iraq, we said that our fallen brothers “died with their boots on.” But during Memorial Day, I don’t think about the gruesome way these men perished – I think about how well they lived.

Husbands, brothers, friends, and community leaders, these American heroes were courageous and bonded by a common love of country. We often quote Isaiah 6:8, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Each of these Georgians quickly and confidently responded, “Here am I. Send me!”

When I returned to Georgia from the Middle East, I met with the families of those we lost. Over the years, I have seen their wives, children and friends at the grocery store, church, or a community event. I know that “holidays” like Memorial Day are nothing short of bittersweet. They miss their father or son but are incredibly proud of his enduring legacy. There’s an empty space at the dining room table, but they know their loved one died in service to a noble cause and a grateful nation.

So, as I roam the grounds of Dobbins ARB this Monday, I will think about these men and pray for their families. I will once again find inspiration in the way they lived and reaffirm my commitment to service as a way of honoring their sacrifice. I will remind myself that to whom “much is given, much is required” and will attempt to live in a manner that honors those who perished under my watch.

This Memorial Day, I hope you too will pause to remember the fallen, their families, and loved ones. Remember the six Georgians of the 108th Armor 48th Infantry Brigade and the many more who laid it all on the line to protect our way of life. On this solemn occasion, remember the high cost of freedom. Thanks to those who answered the call of duty, we are fortunate to live in the greatest nation history has ever seen.

John King is Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner.