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Memorial Day 2023
What is Memorial Day?
It is a day to remember those who gave their lives in combat operations defending the United States of America.
Sounds simple, doesn't it. And yet I only recently became aware of the deep significance of this holiday. Perhaps some background on the origin of Memorial Day will provide some context.
Following the American Civil War, local towns would, from time to time, organize events to remember and honor their soldiers who had been killed in "The War of Northern Aggression" as it was known in the Southern States, and the "Late Rebellion" as it was known in the Northern States. 18 23 24
And so what we now call Memorial Day began in communities all over the country in States struggling to reunite after a terrible, bitter civil war in which as many as 800,000 people were killed. This represents about 2% of the U.S. population at that time.
To try to understand the magnitude of their loss, consider the current population of the United States is about 335 million. Two percent of that 335 million is 6.7 million. Imagine how you would feel if some catastrophe were to cause the death of 6.7 million U.S. citizens over the next four years. It is impossible to comprehend. Yet that is what happened to our predecessors who lived through the U.S. Civil War. And still, after the carnage and death was over, they moved forward with their lives and built, along with those who followed them, the country which we are fortunate to have inherited.. 18 23 24
Perhaps you are familiar with the saying from the postapocalyptic novel "Those Who Remain" by G. Michael Hopf, "Hard times make strong men..." and the saying from Isaac Newton, “...it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
We should remember those strong men, those giants on whose shoulders we stand, they who gave their lives fighting this terrible civil war. Remember them and honor them.
May 5th, 1868 General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (illustrated above) issued his General Order No. 11 in which he wrote, "The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit..." 18 23 24
And so what we now call Memorial Day became more organized, with soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic carrying out General Logan's General Order No. 11 on a regularly scheduled date in remembrance of their fellow soldiers who died in the then recent U.S. Civil War. This event became an annual observance known as "Decoration Day". A day when the graves of fallen soldiers would be "decorated" in remembrance of and honor for their sacrifice. Things grew and took on a life of their own from there. 18 23 24
In 1873, New York became the first state to officially recognize the holiday. After World War I, American newspaper editorials began calling for "Decoration Day" to also include U.S. soldiers killed in "The Great War". As the decades passed, the day came to include all U.S. soldiers who had died in combat operations in any conflict, "police action", and declared war. 18
And now here we are in May 2023 with Memorial Day fast approaching again. What will we do this time?
What has Memorial Day become?
Is it just another day at work? A welcome day off from work? A grand three-day weekend? A celebration of the first day of summer?. An annual barbecue bash with family and friends?
Even though many members of my family and many of my friends have served in various branches of the U.S. Military, I grew up not really understanding the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. To me, they were both days to honor those who were currently serving or who had previously served in the U.S. Military. The only difference for me was that Memorial Day had the added feature of the first big party of the summer.
How did we arrive at this state of affairs? How did I grow up conflating Memorial Day with Veterans Day? Did you have a similar experience?
Perhaps it is because I had the great good fortune to not have a close friend or family member killed in combat.
Over the years, I would occasionally thank military friends and relatives on Memorial Day for their service and not understand their responses. Their responses tended to be something like "don't thank me, let's remember those who died in combat." I would respond "ok" in my ignorance, not really making the connection. Then I would go back to the party and since everyone was having such a good time, I would quickly forget the incident.
Many years ago, I was living in Bristol Connecticut with my then young wife and new child. Our church would host their largest event of the year on Memorial Day. This event was very well attended with hundreds of people enjoying the spring weather, playing typical American outdoor games like softball, volleyball, horse shoes, and frisbee. We would share a typical American barbecue lunch/dinner with hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, watermelon, more desserts than anyone should eat at a single sitting, and all the expected fixins prepared with love by the mothers and grand mothers of our church. It was a wonderful event with good food and good friends in a place where I loved to live.
While living in Connecticut, I remember frequently traveling a street in the town of Bristol known as Veterans Memorial Boulevard. This street in Bristol is a divided, tree lined street with a large, 37 1/2 foot tall monument at one end. It is not the typical city street. It is obviously something out of the ordinary having a special significance. The significance is underscored by the monument which is inscribed with the phrase "The City of Bristol To Honor Its Residents Who Served in The World War, Here Records Their Names". The incscription is large enough to read while driving by the monument, Yet in the almost ten years that I lived in Bristol, I never once took time to stop and view the monument more closely and try to understand its significance. However, every time I drove past that monument, I would muse on the phrase "The World War" and wonder at the apparent naivete or perhaps hopeful naivete of the builders of that monument who were obviously unaware of what would come in the decades following their construction of that monument. Now that we have suffered another major world war and a continual parade of additional wars and conflicts and seem on the brink of yet another world war, the phrase "The World War" is sadly out of date. 20 21
In all those years, not only did I not stop to view the monument, but I don't remember seeing anyone at the monument. We were all too busy with our lives and daily concerns to pause and consider the reason for the monument. And so, year after year, I attended the wonderful church Memorial Day party without a single thought for what I have only recently discovered are the 1,341 names of Bristol Soldiers who died in "The World War". Those 1,341 Bristol, Connecticut soldiers gave their lives to protect our country. We should remember and honor them and their sacrifice. 20 21
A few years ago, the traveling Vietnam Memorial came to Cedar City, Utah where I now reside. It was set up for a time in the city park in down town Cedar City. Day after day, I passed by it traveling to and from various destinations with no intention to stop and look closer. I was too busy. And besides, if I every wanted to see the Vietnam memorial, I could always go online and read about it.
However, unlike the Bristol, Ct. memorial, I noticed a large crowd at the traveling Vietnam memorial in Cedar City every time I passed by it. On one such day, the thought came to my mind that I should stop and look closer. Happily, I acted on that thought and parked my car, got out and began walking along the memorial. I didn't think much of it at first. It is a simple structure inscribed with 58,311 names of U.S. military who gave their lives in Vietnam in service to their country. As I began to walk along the wall, I tried to read the names and quickly became overwhelmed with emotion as I understood that those names represent real fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, brothers, and sisters who left behind many thousands more fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters, other relatives, and friends whom they loved and who loved them. It was an experience I did not expect. Those 58,311 U.S. airmen, sailors, and soldiers gave their lives in service to our country. We should remember and honor them and their sacrifice.
How can we put the Memorial back in to Memorial Day?
At 3 p.m. local time, pause from whatever you are doing for a moment of remembrance, respect and honor for the over 1 million U.S. airmen, marines, sailors, and soldiers who have given their lives in combat operations in service to our country.
If you aren't sure how to do this, consider the following suggestions. Click the footnote numbers to see the reference or watch the related video. (Warning, some of the videos are heartbreaking.)
- Listen to "Taps" or watch a video about "Taps". 1 11 12 25
- Watch "The Poppy Story". 9
- Read the poem "In Flanders Fields". 26
In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
- Watch one of the Memorial Day tributes by Navy Seal Jocko Wilinck. 15 16
- Watch "A Memorial Day Worthy of the Fallen". 3
- Watch or listen to "The Mansions of the Lord". 2
- Visit your local veterans memorial.
- Take your family to "strew" flowers on the grave of a U.S. soldier, sailor, marine or airman who died in combat operations as suggested by General John Logan in his General Order 11. Or place red poppies on the grave of a fallen veteran as suggested in the poem "In Flanders Fields." 17 22 26
- Watch "The Minstrel Boy" on youtube. 4 10
- Watch "Hymn to the Fallen". 14
- Watch "A Warrior's Pledge". 6
- Watch Ronald Reagan's Memorial Day Speech. 7
- Watch "Soldier's Light" by 15 year old Rylee Preston. 5
- Write a message of love and gratitude to your loved one who gave his or her life in combat defending our country. Or, if like me, you are lucky enough to not have a loved one who died in combat, write the message instead to a loved one of a friend, or write to Timothy J. Driscoll who's name is listed on the Bristol WW I Monument, or to George Fox who is one of 62,311 honorees of the WWII Memorial with the first name George, or to Robert A. Burke who is listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or to any soldier who's name catches your eye on any of the many veterans memorials around the country. Then read that letter to your fallen soldier in your mind, put it in a safe place. At some later time, read the message to a trusted friend or family member, explain the purpose of your message, pass it on to them for safe keeping and ask them to continue the tradition at some appropriate time in the future.
And then go back to what you were doing with a renewed commitment to live your life in such a way that helps justify the sacrifice of so many lives. A commitment to live your life with great gusto and joy cherishing every minute of every day. To never forget what was done for you, and to do what you can to pass on to the next generation the liberty that so many have purchased at such great personal cost to themselves and their loved ones. And, as U.S. Navy Seal, Jocko Willink says, "Don't forget to smile." 15 And, as U.S. Army Ranger, John Lovell says, "enjoy...have some fun." 3
19. "Veterans Memorial Park Cedar City". https://www.tourofhonor.com/pages/2011ut_cedarcity.html.
20. Bristol Parks Recreation Youth and Community Services. "Bristol Connecticut Veterans Memorial Park and Boulevard". https://bristolct.myrec.com/info/dept/details.aspx?DeptInfoID=907.
24. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "The Origins of Memorial Day". https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/celebrate/memday.pdf.