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Friday, May 23, 2014

Why the Fallen Still Matter

  Around this time every year, I am asked the question, "What are you doing for Memorial Day?" My answer often surprises people and, in my explanation, I try to get them to feel the spirit of where I'm coming from.
   I grew up in a very patriotic household. My family and I always went to a ceremony on Memorial Day, a parade on the 4th of July, etc. At an early age, I became aware of the privilege of being an American and the many blessings I have from living in this country. But, even so, I didn't fully grasp the meaning of a holiday like Memorial Day. I knew it was for remembering the fallen, yet it meant little to me beyond that.
   Then came the fall of 2006. I so clearly recall the sinking feeling in my heart on a Sunday afternoon as I read the headline in our newspaper. Through tears, I tried to absorb the sad news that a Marine, who I had the pleasure of meeting the year before, had added his name to the thousands who had given their lives before him. Just a year prior, we had shaken hands and visited. He had returned home with his fellow Marines to a hero's hometown welcome. And we had been there, seen him greet his wife and family and meet his newborn daughter for the first time. And now, it would forever be only a memory. It was so hard to believe. I stared at the picture that was taken of him and me at his homecoming - in that moment, I knew that I would never be the same.



 That next Memorial Day was so different for me. They were no longer "just names" to me. I knew one of them. They were faces now - real people with ordinary lives who did extraordinary things. I realized that the day was about more than just acknowledging their sacrificial act of death but also about remembering their lives.
 Over the next few years, I would have the chance to meet and talk with other Marines who had served with the one I knew as well as get to know the families of those who had died. In all of my conversations, I came away learning something profound: to the nation, these individuals were brave warriors - "heroes" many call them; to their loved ones, however, they were simply sons and daughters, spouses, parents, siblings, and friends. They were people who loved the outdoors, or played a musical instrument, or participated in sports. Each one of them gave up whatever personal dreams and aspirations they had for something they believed in more than themselves. By putting their own lives on the line, they gave us the chance to pursue and fulfill our plans and dreams. It takes a special kind of love to offer such a gift. Do we see it as such, or do we often take it for granted?


 From my observation, many Americans treat Memorial Day like the 4th of July with picnics, parties, and celebration. While it is important to take advantage of time with loved ones - after all, the fallen would want us to do so - the whole concept could become more about enjoying the long weekend than appreciating the sacrifices of those who gave all. Maybe we all deserve a bit of a reminder here: the day was meant to honor and remember. To give something of our time to thank those who valued our freedom above their own. I've been as guilty of this as anyone, of rushing past the national moment of silence at 3 p.m. and saying, "Oh, sorry. I was too busy." Talk to the guys who served with these fallen, and they will tell you their greatest worry is that their dead buddies will be forgotten. That they are the only ones who continue to remember them. Perhaps that fear is coming true. 



  I believe this is a question worth pondering: what will we be as a nation if all that the next generation thinks of Memorial Day is hamburgers, hotdogs, firecrackers, or a camping trip? If we do not pass on the importance that the fallen still matter, that sacrifice should be honored, and that giving is better than receiving, we run the risk of losing a part of who we are. We have an obligation to the ones who died: to make the most of our lives but also to thank them for giving theirs. 


 And so, to answer the annual question, "What are you doing for Memorial Day?" I say the same as I do every year: I am going to remember. I will be at a ceremony to honor those brave individuals and even walk among their graves. I will let their families know that they have not been forgotten either. And I will pause to grieve with their surviving brothers-in-arms. Most importantly, I will renew my commitment to them - to honor their memory for another year. To be grateful for the life I have because of them.
  And I hope that you will join me and that you will stop long enough to remember the ones who gave their tomorrow for your today. 


* Special thanks to Forest Brooks for providing some of the photos for this post.