Memorial Day has always been my favorite holiday. This might seem a bit odd to some, given the fact that it's a rather somber holiday - a day of remembrance instead of celebration. To be honest, it's not even a "holiday" at all...except for the businesses that close on that day to observe it. But sadly, many have made this day into a "holiday" like all the rest, and it has increasingly bothered me that so few even realize what this day is for.
Memorial Day was actually originally called "Decoration Day" in honor of those who had given their lives in service to the country. It was a day to "decorate" the graves and to reflect on the memory of those brave souls who sacrificed everything for their nation's freedom. Great Britain rightly calls their observance of this "Remembrance Day." Thus, we set aside other days like Armed Forces Day to remember those who are currently serving and to thank them for what they do on our behalf. Veterans Day became the observance of those past warriors who are no longer actively serving in uniform. But Memorial Day was for the fallen.
And yet, it has become more like Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day, and the 4th of July all rolled into one...with a little remembrance of those who died thrown in. But the focus has shifted. And unfortunately, most have forgotten what these dead heroes did. Even though I grew up having been taught the meaning of the day, it wasn't until I lost someone I knew in the War on Terror that the meaning of it became more real to me. These fallen men weren't just names on plaques and gravestones, they were faces with stories and lives full of promise that were cut short for the cause of liberty.
This past April, I had the opportunity to travel to the East Coast for a family vacation and, while there, the meaning of sacrifice took on a whole new impact for me. Walking the battlefield at Princeton, New Jersey and picturing the field strewn with wounded and dead men, the injured being taken into the Thomas Clarke house (which still stands today), and George Washington bravely riding between the lines of fire as he inspired his rag-tag army to fight for freedom - suddenly I felt a bit of what they felt. Their eyes saw this same ground. I was walking on hallowed soil where their blood was spilt for the cause they believed in.
Strolling down the Continental Trail where this same troupe of men, who had just crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey in late December 1776 with plans to surprise the German Hessions at Trenton, I knew what sacrifice was all about. This same trail was bloodied by the feet of those soldiers who marched along with no shoes, ill clad for the harsh weather and battling not only their own discouragement but also the elements. I thought of how they must've questioned on more than one occasion whether Washington was crazy and if this fight for freedom was worth it. Walking along this very same path, under a sworn oath of silence lest their presence be discovered by the enemy, these men knew what hardship was. Some even froze to death along this march en route to Trenton. In the providence of God, the cause turned in their favor upon reaching Trenton and successfully executing the attack...but I couldn't help but marvel at what they went through so that I could be here all these centuries later and have a chance at a free and fulfilling life.
And then, there was my visit to Arlington National Cemetery. This one sacred and hallowed place of remembrance was a must-see on my list of things to do. For one, I needed to make a solemn pilgrimage to the grave of Marine Cpl. Michael Lasky whose death in Iraq nearly ten years ago has changed my life forever. The meaning of sacrifice hit me hard en route to his grave for, on the walk there through the cemetery, I witnessed a caisson procession for a fallen leader, a scene that is synonymous with Arlington for those who are familiar with it. Hearing the clip-clop of the immaculately groomed horses and hearing the strains of "America the Beautiful" wafting over the graves, I felt a stirring in my soul. This was only heightened upon my seeing the famous changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Later, I wondered: why do such moments have to be contained to military ceremonies and cemeteries like this? Where has the observance and the national memory of the fallen gone?
In reflecting on this sad but true reality, I realized that two factors play into this lack of respect:
First, many people have not personally had their lives touched by war. Many do not even know a person serving and thus, they have no reason (so they think) to give it much thought or attention. It's easier to simply throw a cook-out together and hang out with friends. I'm certainly not judging these folks or saying that BBQs and the like aren't okay. It's just that many choose to treat it like any other day off instead of incorporating the true meaning of Memorial Day into their plans. I'm encouraged that some make the effort to attend local ceremonies and observance events, but I do wish there were more.
Secondly, most are not being taught the history and the importance of this day. We are not taking our children to the places and the events that will help them to learn that this day means something. That sacrifice is to be commended and honored. We are not motivating ourselves to learn our history, to make it personal, and to perpetuate it to generations yet unborn. We have, quite simply, forgotten who we are. We have forgotten where we came from. And the names of these individuals, the stories of their bravery, is being lost to history. We are rushing past and missing out on the true meaning of why we're even here anyway. Think about it for a minute: if the brave men who fought for our Independence hadn't been willing to stand up to a tyrannical power and declare that every man, woman, and child has a free opportunity at "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," we would not be here. If the heroic men of WWI and WWII had not stood up to the oppressive regimes of Germany, Japan, and others and given their lives to protect those at home, we would be speaking foreign languages. If our current generation had not been willing to go over to the Middle East following 9/11 and fight a war on international soil, we would be seeing our country taken over by terrorists and our relatively peaceful lives would be greatly altered.
You and I owe much to the courageous acts of those who have given their lives in war to the service of their country. And we ought to be profoundly grateful. But I am afraid that their deeds often go unnoticed, and our lack of thankfulness is a disgrace to their memory. While their lives have ended, their memory has not, and it is our duty to keep it alive. If you ask any living warrior what their greatest fear is, it is not that they will possibly be numbered among the dead themselves...it is that their fallen comrades will be forgotten. God forgive this nation for neglecting to be appreciative and to acknowledge that such great individuals have graced it!
This Memorial Day, let's do our part to remember. Whether it is attending a ceremony of remembrance near where you live or simply stopping at the 3 o'clock hour in your time zone to observe the national moment of silence, let us ensure that our fallen shall not have died in vain.