Monday, May 28th, is Memorial Day. It's a day set aside in 1967 to honor military veterans who died in service to their country.
Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was a yearly event in which people decorated the graves of fallen military members. It began in 1861 but really took shape during and following the Civil War, when the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers were decorated each year by local citizens. (Over 620,000 men died in the Civil War. Those citizens were busy.)
The tradition continued without being a holiday until 1967, when Lyndon Johnson declared it the Memorial Day Holiday. It was originally observed on May 30th, until the government created Monday holidays for most American days of observation.
Many people confuse Memorial Day with Veterans' Day, or believe they are similar. They're not. Veterans' Day is a day set aside to honor all military veterans, living and dead, to thank them for their service. Memorial Day is set aside specifically to honor those who made that ultimate sacrifice in service to their country.
It is said that a veteran is a person who “at some point, wrote a blank check to 'the people of the United States of America' in the sum of 'up to and including my life.'” And in many ways that's true. Not all military members end up in harm's way. I served eight years during what was mostly peacetime (Grenada happened while I was in) and never had to deploy to a combat zone. But I would have had it been necessary.
My point is when you join the U.S. armed services you basically volunteer your life in service to your country. And many end up making that ultimate sacrifice. And that's why we have Memorial Day – to honor those who selflessly served the people of this nation.
Many Americans will spend Monday barbecuing and spending time celebrating with family. And I'm OK with that. The men and women who sacrificed their lives would be OK with that too, I'm sure, because freedom to enjoy life is what they sacrificed their lives for. All I would ask is that at some point in the day they contemplate the true purpose of the day and honor those who made it possible for them to celebrate.
In 1991, I was living in Leavenworth, Kansas, just outside the front gate of Fort Leavenworth. The Saturday before Memorial Day I took my six year old son to Fort Leavenworth and we helped soldiers and other volunteers place American flags in front of every grave stone in the national cemetery on the grounds of the fort. It was truly a humbling experience and such an honor. It was my way of not only honoring my fallen military comrades but also of teaching my son the importance of doing just that. And while it didn't have quite the same significance for him that it did for me, I know he never forgot the experience.
I read something the other day that said “Don't wish people a happy Memorial Day because it's a day of remembrance and solemnity.” I disagree. I wish everyone a happy Memorial Day in celebration of the freedoms we have thanks to our military members, and particularly those who died while fighting to preserve our freedom. As long as you remember the true meaning of the day there is no reason you shouldn't celebrate what it has brought us.
I offer a heartfelt thank you to all military members, but this weekend, particularly to those who made that ultimate sacrifice on my behalf. You may not get the recognition you deserve on a regular basis but Monday is your day.