May 24, 2012

Memorial Day: More than just a day off from work

Commentary by Kevin Rieders
52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joseph McKee)
Staff Sgt. Andrew Caya places an American flag on a grave during a Memorial Day ceremony. This Memorial Day, please consider decorating a fallen servicemember’s grave and taking a moment of silence to reflect on the sacrifices made by our fellow Americans.

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany (AFNS) — Memorial Day is a holiday, peculiarly observed. If you have not served on a detail, volunteered for honor guard, or flown a missing man formation over a military ceremony on Memorial Day, you may primarily associate this holiday with the running the Indianapolis 500, the beginning of the Critical Days of Summer, or just a glorious three-day weekend at the end of May.

The official function of Memorial Day is to honor the men and women of the United States who have died while serving our nation’s military service. It is an American holiday, with obscure origins even though it is less than 150 years old, and claimed by many as their own patriotic invention. Officially proclaimed in 1868, Memorial Day became widespread by 1902, and was named a federal holiday in 1971.

Originally known as Decoration Day, the holiday began as the organized honoring of the fallen from the Civil War by decorating their graves with flowers, candles and prayer. After World War I, the separate Union and Confederate Decoration Days combined as Memorial Day and recognized those who have died in military service during any war.

During the years, traditional observances of Memorial Day diminished. Many Americans forgot the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day, and at many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are untended. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. Some people think the day is for honoring all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country. Memorial Day used to be a solemn day of mourning. With the memory of the lost still fresh, it was a sacred day of remembrance to honor those who paid the ultimate price for our freedoms. Businesses closed for the day, and towns held parades honoring the fallen, often ending at a local cemeteries. People took the day to clean and decorate graves of those who fell in service to their country with flowers and flags the graves. As the decades passed those observances faded.

“There are a few notable exceptions. Since the late 1950s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 Soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry (Regiment) place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn, a practice that continues to this day. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of Soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’s Heights,” according to

In 1923, Congress established the American Battle Monuments Commission. This was done largely to “commemorate the service, achievements, and sacrifice of U.S. armed forces where they have served overseas since 1917,” according to

This Memorial Day, please consider decorating a fallen servicemember’s grave and taking a moment of silence to reflect on the sacrifices made by our fellow Americans.

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