By James Jay Carafano

The Heritage Foundation

Cold gray monuments, brassy parades, majestic flyovers — they are all remembrances of those who died in the service of the nation. They are all part of our Memorial Day.

No day speaks more about American patriotism than the day we thank those who gave their lives in the fight for freedom. Yet, no ceremony, no solemnity can ever replace those we have lost.

If the families of the fallen who have borne the sorrow of all our battles from Bull Run to Baghdad could have one thing on this day, it would be to have their loved ones back. We cannot unburden their grief.

We can to do our utmost not to add to their ranks.

So while on this day we honor sacrifice, we have a job the rest of the year as well: reminding our leaders in Washington to ensure that the troops who defend us have what they need to do the job — and come back to us. There is no better way to recognize the valor of those who serve, and demonstrate care and respect for their families, than to pay it forward — to properly arm our armed forces for the next fight.

Adequately funding defense could be the greatest challenge this nation faces in the years ahead. Most of the increases in Pentagon funding since 9/11 have gone to safeguarding U.S. interests, from protecting the homeland to fighting in far-off Afghanistan. After 10 years, we have put a lot of wear and tear on the armed forces. The danger that our military preparedness could plummet has never been greater.

Today, America has the smallest Navy since before World War I, and the force is aging. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the popular movie “Top Gun.” The ship featured in the film was the USS Enterprise. It is still at sea. In fact, it was commissioned in the 1960s, and is the second oldest ship in the U.S. fleet. Ships in the Navy’s sister fleet, the U.S. Coast Guard, are even older.

The Coast Guard has ships at sea that are eligible for Social Security.

America’s Air Force has the oldest average fleet of planes and the fewest number of planes in its inventory at any time since World War II.

The B-52 bomber fleet is as old as the Enterprise.

The Army and Marine Corps both have aging fleets of vehicles — and have just seen the plans to replace them pushed further down the road.

Annual spending to buy new equipment is already under-funded by about $50 billion a year. Still, there are calls to slash military spending.

They are, of course, caveated with promises that cuts won’t harm the troops.

These assurances are cold comfort. Before World War II, we were told the United States would rearm if a threat arose, but in failing to remain armed in the interwar years, we encouraged the enemy to rise up and attack us first. When the Korean War broke out, we did not even have time to rearm before we sent troops into battle wearing sneakers and shouldering rusted rifles.

After 9-11, we plunged into war short many tens-of-thousands of troops and missing critical equipment, from body armor to up-armored vehicles.

Despite the bitter lessons of history, there are calls to cut defense, offers of an “easy” answer of another peace dividend now — to be paid for in blood and sacrifice later.

Now is not the time to cut. Now is the time to pay it forward. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

James Jay Carafano is the director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.