Last Memorial Day, President Barack Obama honored America's troops for their great sacrifices in defense of our freedom. "That is why they are the best of America," the president said, "and that is what separates them from those of us who have not served in uniform: their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met."

During this year's Memorial Day, we owe it to ourselves to think about the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. They left their families for foxholes in foreign lands, eschewing comfort for service. It can truly be said that they were selfless in their motives, desires and actions. They heeded the call to serve, putting their lives on the line for the safety and security of others. It is impossible to know how our lives would be different had they not, but it is certain that the difference would be great in its lack of freedom and security.

They volunteered to do the job the rest of us are eternally grateful to have avoided.

It wasn't until after the Civil War that citizens in communities throughout our nation began commemorating our fallen soldiers, their sons and neighbors. It's likely that the first Memorial Day celebration took place in Charleston, S.C., shortly after the Civil War ended.

It is believed that a group of former slaves exhumed the bodies of soldiers from mass graves at a nearby prison camp to give them a proper burial. After every soldier had been placed in an individual grave, it was reported in the local newspaper, as many as 10,000 residents gathered for a celebration that included sermons, singing and a picnic nearby.

The origin of Memorial Day, in itself, demonstrates the selfless service the holiday was designated to honor. Just like the soldiers of the Civil War, our servicemen and servicewomen fight to safeguard basic human rights and freedoms. They do so because their country asked them to. The least they deserve is a day spent in gratitude for that service.

We have all been touched by their sacrifice, if not personally by a loss, then indirectly by our gain as a free nation. Even the staunchest pacifist can agree that our military forces provide a deterrent so massive and fearsome that our enemies know that to attack us is eventual and assured suicide.

This looming threat, that we can and will counterattack with 100 times the force of the original blow, provides a measure of safety and security from which we all benefit. As a nation, we rest assured knowing that we are the biggest kid on the playground and nobody had better mess with us.

Yes, we face significant threats of asymmetrical warfare, but thanks to our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines that threat isn't coming with the full force of a foreign government behind it. Our daily lives are made safe because of the sacrifices the men and women of our armed forces make on a daily basis.

There are two painful truths I have to acknowledge in a column about honoring the service and sacrifice of the men and women who make up our armed forces.

First, we haven't always given them what they deserve. Whether it's body armor or veteran benefits, our service people deserve the best, and too often don't get it.

Second, there is a socio-racial-economic disparity in this country that cannot be ignored and makes the vulnerable among us carry a greater burden of service. I applaud the choice of those who want to go into the military, but it should be a choice -- not an escape from the socio-racial-economic disparity that cripples us as a nation and as individuals.

All this is to say that we have inherited an obligation to honor those who built and defend our nation. We must honor them in all stages of service. The sacrifice they make is too great to send them into combat for anything less than the most honorable of missions with the best of support, on the ground and when they return home.

With this week's sobering news that the war in Afghanistan has now taken the lives of more than 1,000 of our sons and daughters, Memorial Day could not come at a more meaningful time. So on this long weekend, fire up the grill, catch up on the latest movies or take a mini-vacation somewhere but, please, I ask you, do not for a moment forget what Memorial Day is really about. It's a day to remember and to give thanks.

In a letter sent to me by Jim Hake, founder and CEO of Spirit of America, he urged us "to help our troops, write a letter or just say a prayer, but do something to thank those we owe for our security." When the mission is complete, we will bring them home to the heroes' welcome they deserve.

As America's armed forces continue to be engaged in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, we must remember that we are at war, and that it is only through the sacrifice of others that we are allowed to walk through our daily lives forgetting that.

But not this weekend. This weekend it is our duty to remember. It is our turn to do our duty by giving pause and thanks for the duty of others. To every serviceman and to every servicewoman, and to the families they had to leave behind: Thank you for your service to our great nation.

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR; contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill; and former campaign manager for Al Gore.

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