This Monday, will you sleep a little later? Will you check the weather over your morning coffee and curse the rain clouds? Will you stop at the store to grab packages of hot dog buns, bottles of ketchup and charcoal briquettes? Will you ice down beverages and season hamburger patties? Will you plug in strings of lights, relax in lawn chairs and enjoy your day off work?
As you should.
However, there are three other things — things that are more important than the grill or the weather or the mosquitoes — that we should all do this weekend so that Memorial Day isn’t just another public observance.
First, stop. Set aside the mundane concerns of the day. Pause the frantic pace of the weekend. Block out the immediate. Focus on what gives Memorial Day meaning.
A few decades ago, everyone knew someone who served in the military. During World War II, 12 percent of Americans joined the service. Now, only one percent of the population serves in the military due to modernization, automation and the all-volunteer force. This military-civilian gap in familiarity makes it more important for us to make a conscious effort to remember why we observe Memorial Day.
On May 5, 1868, Maj. Gen. John Logan declared that flowers should decorate the graves of fallen Union and Confederate soldiers of the Civil War at Arlington Cemetery, stating, “Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.” By the end of World War I, “Memorial Day” was being recognized across the country as a holiday to honor those Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who gave their lives fighting for our country’s freedom in all American wars. That’s how it all started.
About 1.2 million Americans have died in battle or while serving in theater in all conflicts since the American Revolution; however, every year, 150,000 men and women voluntarily raise their right hands to enlist in the U.S. military. They take the Oath of Enlistment (or the officers’ Oath of Office) promising to defend the U.S. Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Whatever the reason they decided to enter the military — most join to serve their country, to get the G.I. Bill, to see the world, or to learn job skills — when they take this solemn vow, they know that there is a possibility, no matter how remote, that they could face danger, injury or even death. Monday is the day that we show respect for those who paid that ultimate price.
Second, see. Open your eyes. Look around. Find the war memorials in every small town and metropolis in this country. From the small monument alongside the marina in my village of Jamestown, Rhode Island, to the moving, stark Vietnam Memorial bunkering the earth on the Mall in Washington, D.C. From the names of alumni who died serving in combat carved into the wall at my children’s high school, to the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From the tiny Ball’s Bluff National Civil War-Era Cemetery in Leesburg, Virginia, where 54 Union Army Soldiers were laid to rest, to the seemingly endless rows of more than 400,000 gravestones at Arlington Cemetery.
Memorials to fallen heroes are everywhere. All you have to do is open your eyes and see them.
Third, feel. As you look at the memorials and gravestones of those who fought for our freedom, think about how it must have felt for them to face the terror of war. Contemplate the courage it must’ve taken for them to place themselves in harm’s way for the greater good. Appreciate that these heroes lost their lives while fighting valiantly so that we can live in a free, democratic society. Consider the families who won’t grill hot dogs or relax in lawn chairs on Monday because they will be shedding tears over the graves of their fallen loved ones.
Those brave, selfless souls deserve to be remembered in a meaningful way. Stop, see, feel on Monday, to keep their legacy of honor alive.
(Editor’s note: Molinari writes a column covering different aspects of military life. You can find her articles at www.themeatandpotatoesoflife.com.)