Honoring our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day

The most iconic image of the national commemoration of Memorial Day can be found at Arlington National Cemetery. American flags grace each and every gravestone, a reminder of a soldier's sacrifice for country and freedom.

That powerful tribute to Americans who perished while serving in the military extends to national cemeteries around the country.

This tradition at Arlington, known as "flags in," dates back to 1948. Today, more than 260,000 gravestones are graced with flags.

This year's national holiday comes in the wake of the end of combat operations in Iraq and a firm timetable for a withdrawal from Afghanistan after more than a decade at war in the region.

The casualty tolls -- 4,400 in Iraq and 1,850 in Afghanistan -- and the return of many soldiers make this Memorial Day especially poignant for military families.

The family of Braden River High School graduate and Army Spc. 4 Patrick Lay, killed last August in Afghanistan, will be joined by Gov. Rick Scott in a graveside ceremony at Sarasota National Cemetery this afternoon. A special remembrance will also be held there for Lance Cpl. Nathaniel Schultz of Hillsborough County, killed in Afghanistan.

Let us also remember and honor Manatee County's other casualties in those wars:

Army Pfc. Christopher North, 2003 Lakewood Ranch graduate, died in Baghdad in 2007. He was 21.

Army Staff Sgt. John L. Hartman Jr., 1984 Manatee graduate, died in 2006, also in Baghdad. He was 39.

Army Staff Sgt. Paul Mardis Jr., 1997 Palmetto graduate, was killed in 2004 near Mosul, Iraq. He was 25.

Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Dougherty, 2002 Bayshore graduate, died in 2004 near Al Anbar Province, Iraq. He was 20.

Army Spc. Justin Schmidt, 1998 graduate of Manatee who attended Bayshore for three years, was killed in 2004 in Baghdad. He was 23.

Marine Pfc. Christopher Cobb, 2003 Bayshore graduate, died in 2004 in Ramadi, Iraq. He was 19.

Army Staff Sgt. Fred Miller, a New Jersey native, whose wife, Jamie Sonekeo Miller, was raised in Bradenton, died in 2003 in Ramadi, Iraq. He was 27.

While costly, the wars did unite Americans behind veterans and active duty soldiers.

This holiday weekend, let us resolve to honor and treasure those who lost their lives in our service and their families.

While Memorial Day dates back to the Civil War, a presidential resolution only a dozen years ago established another way for Americans to honor our heroes beyond cemetery visits, parades and other special ceremonies.

The "National Moment of Remembrance" calls for citizens to pause for one minute at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day "to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom for all."

Americans can also honor our military in a public way at one of Manatee County's remembrance events, including this evening's Tribute To Heroes Memorial Parade and Celebration at Lakewood Ranch Main Street to the traditional Memorial Day morning ceremony at Veterans Park behind Manatee Memorial Hospital.