Memorial Day: We honor those who have served the cause of freedom

(Editor's Note: This essay was written to introduce the Memorial Day 2013 special section of The Wilton Bulletin.)

This Memorial Day Veterans Photo Supplement has become a Wilton tradition, as many residents look forward each year to viewing the hundreds of faces of current and former Wiltonians who have served in our armed forces. Produced with the assistance of the Wilton Library Photo Archives and Memorial Day Parade Committee, this special supplement honors all Wilton veterans for their service to our country.

The values that lie at the heart of our free and open society trace their origin to the city states of Greece and the republican institutions of Rome. The Framers were intimately familiar with the great writers of antiquity, and were inspired by their focus upon maintaining a just social order. In drafting the Constitution, the Framers sought to improve upon the ancient models they had studied so carefully. They succeeded in creating an enduring government that has safeguarded the liberty, security and prosperity of the American people.

In addition to invaluable lessons in the development of political theory and of remarkable models for republican government, the classical world also offers examples of heroic sacrifice by free people in defense of their liberty. In one of the world’s most celebrated battles, 300 Spartan infantry died at the narrow pass of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. attempting to hold back a rapidly advancing Persian army of vastly superior numbers. Nothing was more precious to the Greeks than the way of life they had forged over many generations: constitutional government, respect for individual rights, and freedom from the arbitrary rule of kings or tyrants. With their very liberty at risk, they were prepared to die in defense of these ideals.

The Spartan sacrifice at Thermopylae was memorialized for all time by the poet Simonides, who composed a famous epitaph honoring the soldiers who fell there. With a moving simplicity, he wrote:

“Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here

we lie, obedient to their commands.”

The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that these words were inscribed on a monument erected at the site where the Spartans perished. It gives voice to the fallen soldiers themselves, buried far from their homes in Laconia. The epitaph makes no mention of Spartan glory or immortality.  Instead, it emphasizes duty and unflinching loyalty to a common cause in the face of an existential threat. No individual soldier is mentioned; indeed, Leonidas himself, the general who perished along with those he commanded, is not named at all. Since no soldier survived this last stand, the passing stranger addressed in the epitaph is asked to take back to the Spartans the news of what happened at Thermopylae.

The words of Simonides are a stirring reminder that all citizens in all ages have a duty to honor the memory of those who have served on their behalf in the cause of freedom. Just as the Spartans sacrificed their lives at Thermopylae, so countless American men and women, both here and abroad, have demonstrated the same patriotism and made the same sacrifice for our own country. While the soldiers Simonides honored are unnamed, here in the pages of this supplement you will recognize the names and look upon the faces of many people who have served from Wilton.

In addition to participating in the parade and ceremony at Hillside Cemetery, take a moment to visit the Veterans Memorial Green in the center of Wilton. To the men and women of our armed services — those who have perished in battle, those who have returned as veterans, and those who are serving today on active duty — we owe the greatest debt. Stand before the six imposing granite monuments and read the names of the Wilton residents who gave their lives in eight American wars: the French and Indian War; the Revolutionary War; the Civil War; World War I, World War II, and the Korean War; the Vietnam and Iraq Wars.

Unlike the unknown Spartan warriors whose memory Simonides honored, these soldiers’ names are engraved for posterity, a lasting reminder of what they gave for their country. Offer them a silent tribute, acknowledge the price they paid, and be grateful for their sacrifice.

Mr. Gabrielson is a teacher of Latin and Greek at Wilton High School.