From the outset, America has been a profound experiment. What began as a small cluster of colonies wedged between a great ocean and a vast wilderness, became the world’s epicenter of hope and opportunity.

A resilient people changed the course of human history by dedicating themselves to a simple yet radical belief that they could rule themselves. They pledged their lives to that cause with the Declaration of Independence, and after winning their freedom, they sought to preserve it with a new system of government.

The Founding Fathers envisioned a small federal government prescribed with specific and limited powers. In our Constitution, they laid out this vision, and through our Bill of Rights, ensured the rights of individuals would not be trampled. But these freedoms have come at a steep cost.

The freedoms and liberties that we enjoy today, have been paid for with the blood of American heroes. Generations of brave servicemen and women have made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure we remain what President Lincoln called, “the last best hope of earth.” The heroes who died on the battlefield ensuring that our experiment in self-government endures are the ones we must think of this Memorial Day weekend.

It’s heroes like native Missourian 2nd Lt. George Allison Whiteman, who was born the oldest of 10 children and went on to attend the Rolla School of Mines (Missouri S&T) before enlisting in the service in 1939. On December 7, 1941, he had just lifted off when he was hit by a burst of Japanese gunfire, which threw his plane out of control and killed him as it crashed just off the end of the runway. He is considered the first American pilot killed in aerial combat in World War II. For his bravery, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and the World War II Victory Medal among several other honors. Nearly 14 years to the date of his death, the Sedalia Air Force Base in Johnson County, Missouri was renamed the Whiteman Air Force Base to honor his service and sacrifice.

It’s patriots like Major Floyd B. Parks, who was born and raised in Missouri and went on to become a decorated aviation officer in the United States Marine Corps during World War II. He was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942, while leading his squadron against Japanese fighters and bombers attacking the island. For his heroism, Major Parks was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, “for extraordinary heroism and conspicuous devotion,” adding, “there can be little doubt that Major Parks gallantly gave up his life in the service of his country.” Yet, these are just two examples. In total, there have been over 1.1 million Americans, and thousands of Missourians, who have died in service to our country.

This Memorial Day weekend, I hope we all take a moment to reflect and honor the lives we have lost for the freedoms we enjoy. Say a prayer for them or observe a moment of silence, but most importantly, cherish what they died for. Their sacrifice has given us what we hold most dear in southern Missouri: the blessing of faith and freedom, the love of family and community, and the defense of home and country. What began as a radical belief almost 250 years ago has become a common virtue in America today: that our rights come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. However, as President Reagan reminded us, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

Whether it was the first band of patriots who perished at the battles of Lexington and Concord, or the heroes lost on the hills of France, in the skies over Europe, in the seas of the Pacific, in the Jungles of Vietnam, or in the sands and mountains of the Middle East, our U.S. service members have ensured the survival and success of freedom. It’s their sacrifice that we celebrate this weekend. It’s because of them that the United States of America will always remain home to a government of, for, and by the people.