Memorial Day: They didn’t all wear uniforms

This first weekend of summer — picnics, barbecues, trips to the beach. Oh, we always paid lip service to the sacrifices of those who gave the final measure to protect the freedoms we now hold (or give up) so casually. We still called it “Memorial Day.” The young kids scrambled a few minutes to plant little flags by the ancient, mossy tombstones.

Memorial Day 2002 was expected to be like that.

The SEALS who found Osama bin Laden a few weeks ago wore uniforms, but not all the men who bought our freedom were “regular army.”

Todd Beamer, 32, was an Oracle Inc. executive from Hightstown, N.J. Jeremy Glick, 31, was a sales manager for an Internet service provider. Thomas Burnett Jr., 38, was a California businessman. Mark Bingham, 31, a former college rugby player from California. All four were on United Airlines Flight 93 when it left Newark, N.J., bound for San Francisco at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2011.

Terrorists armed with knives seized the flight, turned it around somewhere near Cleveland and headed for their chosen target in Washington, D.C.

After making her promise to call his wife and two young boys, Todd Beamer told the GTE supervisor, Lisa Jefferson, that he and the others — now aware thanks to their cell phones of what had happened to three other hijacked flights that day — had decided they were not going to remain mere pawns in the hijackers’ plot.

Mr. Beamer dropped the phone, leaving the line open so the supervisor could hear his final words, as he headed for the front of the plane to force it down in a remote strip mine area of Somerset County, 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Beamer spoke for a nation. Some hear, “Let’s roll.” Others contend he said, “Roll it.”

And then there was silence.

Lisa Jefferson hung up the phone at 10 a.m. Eastern time, realizing no more would be heard from Flight 93. Passengers without uniforms, without orders, had taken out the threat.

Another Memorial Day. The bugles blow, laughing children place flags on the graves of the fallen, the surviving comrades of the silent dead squeeze into too-tight uniforms to march a block or two beneath the flag. But today the dead are no longer so distant. In that one brief moment, a decade ago, Todd Beamer and Jeremy Glick, Thomas Burnett Jr. and Mark Bingham ceased to be “civilians.”

They earned their flags, too. Don’t you think?

A version of this editorial originally appeared in 2002.

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