LOS ANGELES, May 26, 2014—Today marks the American holiday of Memorial Day. Memorial Day is significant because it honors those who have bravely sacrificed their lives for our country.
Unfortunately, the word “bravery” is thrown about so cavalierly that we have lost touch with its true meaning. Perhaps if we get back to the significance of Memorial Day, we can cast bravery back into its original light.
Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day. It was first commemorated on May 1, 1865, when freed slaves gathered in Charleston, South Carolina to honor the deaths of Union soldiers and the end of the Civil War. In 1868, General John Logan issued a special order that May 30 of each year be observed as Decoration Day. After World War I, “Memorial Day” became a way to honor all service men and women of the United States Armed Forces who died in the service of their country.
Traditionally parades are held, flowers are strewn on the graves of the fallen, and graves are decorated to honor the service man or woman’s sacrifice. One of the most beautiful and unique expressions of remembrance occurs at the Palm Springs Air Museum, in Palm Springs, California. Three-thousand red and white carnations are dropped by a B-25 aircraft. Onlookers then pick up and keep the flowers, representative symbols of the day and what it stands for.
As a United States federal holiday, the last Monday of May is a day off work for many Americans. So we use this weekend as a getaway to mark the unofficial beginning of Summer. Others mount small-to-elaborate celebrations centering around barbecues and pool parties with friends, while retailers have used it as just one more opportunity to offer deals in order to draw people into the stores.
Well intentioned posts on social media include wishes for a “Happy Memorial Day” and a general thanks to all who served. For those who have lost, this can be seen as inappropriate, and potentially harmful to use the term “happy” with Memorial Day. One Facebook friend who lost a brother in Vietnam said as much, pointing out that “it is a day of observance. Not celebration.”
Thanking “all who served” can also diminish the significance of the day. Veterans Day, another U.S. holiday commemorated in November, is the day to honor living Armed Services members, enlisted and retired. While these distinctions appear to be fading, all it takes is a renewed focus on reminding a nation that has, sadly, become disconnected from the significance of sacrifice.
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On Saturday, for the first time, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund read the names of the 6,790 service members who have lost their lives in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack, in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. More than 450 people, including family members and friends of the fallen, came to read the names of these heroes in the order that they sacrificed their lives. While we are drawing down from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the laying down of lives is far too often intermingled with political agendas. Perhaps this reconnection to a national tribute could reawaken the force inherent in giving one’s life so that others might live.
The veterans of the Military blog Blackfive take a surprisingly nuanced approach to the commemoration of Memorial Day. Jim Hanson, one of the contributors (known as “Uncle Jimbo”) encourages, “Now fire up the grill and let’s honor them. I’m pretty sure that’s what they would want and as good a representation as any of the liberty and abundance that we enjoy as a result of their sacrifice. I know there are far too many people who are oblivious and just see this as the first party weekend of Summer. That is a shame, a damn shame. There are even those who don’t know, don’t care or even disrespect the occasion. We call those people losers. But let’s not allow that to make us bitter, or to get us up on high horses. That doesn’t help.”
Another contributor writes, “May our comrades, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and loved ones that we miss like no other in our lives and the memories of all those who have sacrificed for America make our time with our families today sweeter, our burgers and brats that much tastier and our holiday that much more enjoyable for the freedom we have to enjoy it in the greatest country God ever gave man.”
Remembrance. Reflection. Commemoration. How will you honor those who have sacrificed for your freedom? It does not require giving up your barbecue or your weekend getaway to honor these brave men and women. Perhaps taking a moment to acknowledge gratitude for all you have gained because someone else lost, is a start toward refresh the meaning of the day.