Many Americans today cannot explain the origins or reasons why we commemorate Memorial Day, though they know it involves a long weekend and hot dogs.
The significance of the national holiday is lost amid the distractions of daily life. It’s often associated more with barbecues, swimming pool openings, and summer weather than any deeper meaning.
But Memorial Day is far more important and significant than that. It is a holiday dedicated to fallen members of America’s armed forces, a day to remember their sacrifice.
This year marks the 154th anniversary of the first Memorial Day remembrance, when Rep. James Garfield, R-Ohio, a Civil War general and future president, began the national tradition.
Garfield gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the sacrifice of those who died fighting in the Civil War. About 5,000 people helped decorate the 20,000 graves of the soldiers buried there.
Before this observance, the day was called Decoration Day because of the practice of decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers with flowers and flags.
Nowadays, the president of the United States usually gives an address at Arlington, accompanied by a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
A similar ceremony takes place in thousands of cemeteries and at other gatherings nationwide. The practice of decorating the graves of fallen service members continues. It is an opportunity for Americans to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Some confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day, and not everyone is clear on the difference. Veterans Day focuses on military veterans who have served our country, whether in war or peace. Veterans Day is a day to thank them for their service and the sacrifices made by them and their families.
Memorial Day, by contrast, focuses on the men and women in our military who never made it back home to their families.
The first thing we can do to honor them is reflect on the values of selflessness, honor, and patriotism that these brave men and women exemplified by sacrificing their lives for our nation.
They came from all walks of life, and all answered the call. None sought death, but each believed in the greater mission of the United States and defended it to the very end.
The 13 service members killed during the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan, the thousands who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the 2,000 American soldiers who died storming the beaches of Normandy to face the evil of the Nazis in 1944—all gave their lives in the protection of our country, along with many thousands of others.
It is sometimes easy to forget that all of these men and women were individuals with families, not just a statistic.
For example, Jonathan Harrington was a militiaman when he fought in the Battle of Lexington at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Harrington, who was about 30, was shot with a musket ball and mortally wounded. Using what strength he had left, according to tradition, he crawled home to die on his own doorstep in the arms of his wife.
More recently, 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum of Bondurant, Wyoming, was one of the 13 service members killed in the suicide bombing during the chaotic U.S. evacuation from Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 26, 2021. McCollum left behind a wife, who gave birth to their daughter three weeks later.
A similar story of loss stands behind each and every casualty number in the history books or news reports, and we should never forget that.
So this Memorial Day, enjoy the long weekend and the hot dogs. But also take a moment to remember the great sacrifice our fallen service members made for our nation.
Perhaps say a quick prayer, give a toast, and remember that we are free because of them.
When children ask about the national holiday, explain that we are honoring all of the men and women who died for our freedoms.
Take some time this Memorial Day to reflect on the importance of the day and the high price freedom demands.
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