Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

Many people get confused between Veterans' Day and Memorial Day. Both are days set aside by our government to remember our military veterans but only one is for those who are still living. The other is for those who made that ultimate sacrifice; those who gave the last full measure of devotion.

Photo credit to Mr. Frank Glick  

In many parts of the country Memorial Day has become the first federal holiday for barbecues and outdoor activities. That's perfectly understandable given that it's at the end of May when nearly all of the country has warmed up to summer-like temperatures. It's a time for family fun and celebration. But many need a reminder of exactly what the celebration and remembrance is for.

Since the Revolutionary War, Americans have fought and died in our armed services - not only to gain our freedom but to maintain it through the years. And while some were forced into the service through the draft, most have been volunteers. They put on the uniform of the United States of America and put their lives on the line in defense of our nation, our flag and our way of life.

There are those who would argue the point about fighting "useless wars" or "illegal wars' but our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines don't make those decisions. They do what they're told. If they're sent to war they do their sworn duty, with very few exceptions, and they do their best. Many come home. Some don't.

There's an old saying that goes "A veteran is a person who, at some point in his/her life, writes a check to 'The people of the United States of America' in the amount of 'Up to and including my life."' Most times the people never cash that check. Sometimes we do.

Memorial Day is a specific day set aside to honor those whose checks were cashed by the people to whom they were made out.

It's that simple.

Veterans' Day is set aside to honor every American who has served in our armed forces. And rightly so. Memorial Day is a second day set aside to honor those veterans who made that ultimate sacrifice and didn't return home to their loved ones. It's a day to honor their memories; a day to remember what they did for us as a nation. It's a day to say thank you - not only to those who gave their lives for us but to their family members who also sacrificed, and still sacrifice because of their loss(es).

Back in the early 90s I had the honor to take my young son to the National Cemetery on Fort Leavenworth to be a part of the crew that placed American flags in front of every veteran's headstone. I don't remember how many graves were there but it was well over 10,000 at the time. (As of 2005 there were over 22,000 interments on site.) There was a crew working that morning but it still took until mid afternoon to place all of the flags.

I still remember the instructions we were given. The flag is centered on each headstone and placed approximately 12 inches out from the stone. It's best if one person does an entire row because it helps maintain uniformity of the row. For me it was an honor to simply be a part of it and my son, whether he knew the true meaning of what he was doing or not (he was six) - he participated and took pride in his work. It's was something he never forgot.

In church yesterday our pastor told the congregations of both services "If you've never been to a national cemetery you should go. It's a moving experience." I must agree. Looking out over the rows and rows of white marble headstones and remembering why they are there - that they all served in our military at one time, gives on a sense of understanding of how many people have loved their country enough to wear the uniform.

There are 147 national cemeteries in the United States and 24 outside the United States - most of those in Europe. I have been to the large one in Luxembourg where General George S. Patton, Jr. is buried. Of course, the most well known one is the Cimetière Américain de Normandie, filled with the bodies of those killed during the D-Day invasion of France. It's a place I hope to visit one day.

As an eight year veteran of the United States Air Force, military holidays are very important to me. But none so much as Memorial Day. There are no words to describe the gratitude I have for those who sacrificed their lives for me and others. They did it during the Revolution, the Civil War, World War 1 and "the war to end all wars" - World War 2. They sacrificed for me, a young teenager, in Vietnam. And they voluntarily sacrifice today in Afghanistan.

The Bible says "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Those who have made that ultimate sacrifice for their fellow countrymen deserve our honor and respect. They did it for us. They did it for love of country. They did it to preserve the way of life that you and I live every day.

A big thank you to all of our nation's veterans - those who have served and those serving still. But a bigger thank you goes out to those of you who gave your lives in service to this great nation. Today is your day. And even though you can't celebrate it - many of us will celebrate it in your honor and memory. You've definitely earned it.

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