At about the same time every year advertisements can be heard or seen for super low prices or special incentive discounts for Memorial Day weekend. I typically smirk or smile when I hear or see these ads, because I can’t be upset with a company or small business trying to maximize their sales or profit margin. After all, they are just piggybacking onto a weekend typically filled with BBQ’s and some type of boating or water activity. It gets me to thinking about how we went from a day of somber reflection out of respect to our fallen loved ones, to an almost celebratory vibe similar to that of the 4th of July.
Like most veterans who have left active service, I am regularly thanked for my service on Memorial Day or asked leading up to the day, “What are your plans for the three-day weekend?” Now generally, I just say thank you or I will say, “You know I haven’t really thought about it.” Which, really isn’t true, I think about those that paid the ultimate price for our freedom all the time. And I unintentionally will hold a mild resentment towards that person for even asking me that question or thanking me for my service. I think to myself, “How do they not know the difference between Memorial day and Veteran’s Day?? It’s more than just a Three Day weekend to me!
I think Medal of Honor recipient MSG Roy Benavidez put it best when he said, “For those who have fought for it, freedom has a taste the protected will never know.” I don’t expect the average American to understand what combat is like. How could I? In a lot of ways it is an unnatural act, and those of us who have survived it, certainly feel compelled to tell the story and keep the memories of those who died…. alive. That is why it is so important to remember what Memorial Day should really be about, a somber and respectful reflection of those 1.1 million plus Americans who have died in our Nation’s wars.
As cited from the VA.gov Memorial Day history page, “Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country. The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.”
The VA.gov page goes on to say, “The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance, about 5,000 people. Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave — a tradition followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom has grown in many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.
The origins of special services to honor those who die in war can be found in antiquity. The Athenian leader Pericles offered a tribute to the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War over 24 centuries ago that could be applied today to the 1.1 million Americans who have died in the nation’s wars: “Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”
To ensure the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.
The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”
So as we congregate with our family and friends on this 150 year anniversary of Decoration Day/Memorial Day, let us reflect on those 1,171,177 (and counting,) service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. From the first battles of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill in 1775, to the regrettable and unbelievable amount (estimated at 525,000) of causalities in our civil war from 1861-1865. Or the single battle that killed more Americans than any other, the month-long battle of the Argonne Forest in World War I. It claimed 26,277 American lives and left 95,786 wounded, an astronomical figure compared with the battles of today. Let us not forget the “Greatest Generation,” where 405,399 souls were lost liberating European lands from a Nazi occupation and fighting an Imperial Japanese force that brought the war to our Country’s soil for the first time since the Revolutionary war. This takes us to two wars that often go overlooked for the tremendous sacrifices and bloodshed that occurred. The Korean and Vietnam wars. Where almost 95,000 lives were spent, and in my opinion those who died and those who survived, don’t get the recognition they deserve. This brings us to the two longest wars in our Nation’s History, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. As it stands today 7,002, lives have been lost and for me personally I can find quite a few names on that list that I knew personally and or had the pleasure of leading in combat. I would be remiss not to mention the “conflicts,” and operations that happen in between and during major wars, that typically involve our special operations forces and truly go unacknowledged, but they are certainly not forgotten.
It is my hope that we never lose sight of what an incredible Nation we live in, and what an honor it is to have the opportunity to not only pay our respects to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but to also acknowledge their family members who had to learn how to live their lives, without their “heroes.”
I ask that wherever you are, that you join me at 3 pm in paying your respects in a moment of silence, and “putting memorial back in Memorial Day.”
I hope that everyone has a safe and meaningful day today,