To a majority of Americans, Memorial Day is little more than the first 3-day weekend of each year; it is typically marked by family get-togethers, barbeques and parades. With rare and notable exceptions, lost in the day’s celebrations is remembrance of the sacrifice, pain and death that led to its creation. Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was not created as a day of celebration, but a day to remember and honor the sacrifices made by military members who died so that Americans could live free.
Decoration Day began in the early 1860s as a day of honoring the soldiers who died during the Civil War. The name originated from the practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers. With memories of death and destruction still fresh in their minds, early Decoration Day participants saw little to celebrate and much to reflect upon.
Unfortunately, with the passage of time, the number of graves to be decorated has increased dramatically. World War I, “the war to end all wars”, didn’t change that. It was followed by World War II, the Korean “conflict”, the Vietnam War and countless military entanglements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and a host of other countries. Many of the soldiers who have died never set foot on a battlefield
For the soldiers who survived their tours of duty, and the family members of those who did not, Memorial Day is most certainly painful, as it brings memories of friends, comrades and relatives into focus. Those memories are especially discomforting to combat veterans who experienced the horror of war first hand.
And when those veterans speak, their words capture the depth of the sacrifices made not only by those who died, but those who survived. They capture the fear and uncertainty experienced by an 18 year-old who is given a brief period of training handed a weapon and shipped off to a war in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home.
They capture the terror of standing next to a fellow soldier and watching him fall and die.
They capture the abuse suffered by returning Vietnam veterans who were cursed, spit on or physically attacked.
They capture the vivid memories of the death and destruction that is war.
And they capture the memory that every person who died in defense of our nation was someone’s son, daughter, wife, husband, mother, father, sister or brother.
Featured photo of Memorial Day observance from Snellville, Georgia provided by the author.