JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — A few years ago I was asked to speak at a Memorial Day ceremony for a retirement community in St. Petersburg, Fla. I am not sure why I was asked, as I certainly did not feel qualified to speak to a crowd of proud veterans on Memorial Day. I am sure it was the simple fact I was an active duty member of the armed forces.
I accepted the offer and desperately tried to come up with a topic to discuss. I was a little embarrassed, because I really did not know anything about the history of Memorial Day.
As with many Americans, Memorial Day has simply become another three-day weekend. It is the beginning of the 101 Critical Days of Summer; it is baseball, boating, barbeques and hanging out at the beach. It is a major shopping day with lots of sales. It is also the first day the fashion conscious among us are allowed to wear white. Needless to say, I had to do some research to learn more about Memorial Day.
Three years after the Civil War ended on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union Veterans established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers.
Union Army Maj. Gen. John Logan declared Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. Logan ordered his posts to decorate the graves “with the choicest flowers of springtime.”
“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance,” Logan said. “Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. 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.”
Many cities have claimed to be the “birthplace” of Decoration Day. On May 5, 1868, the community of Waterloo, N.Y., hosted a ceremony honoring local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. In 1966, Congress declared Waterloo, the birthplace of Decoration Day and renamed it Memorial Day.
It was not until after World War I that Memorial Day was expanded to honor those who had died in all American wars and in 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday on the last Monday in May.
Sadly, many Americans have lost this connection with Memorial Day. For many, the spirit of remembrance is absent. Many Americans have no experience with, or connection to, the military. We have fewer and fewer veterans to share their stories and many older veterans do not like to talk about their service.
What can we do? We can make all the difference in our families and in our communities by putting the “Memorial” back into Memorial Day. Congress has done its part by establishing “The National Moment of Remembrance Act” in 2000; encouraging all Americans to pause, wherever they are, at 3 p.m. Memorial Day for a moment of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to our nation.
I encourage everyone to learn more about the sacrifices of our veterans and share with others your experiences of serving in the military today. I am confident we all have a story to tell about someone we know who has paid the ultimate price while serving this country. Look up people like Air Force Capt. Derek Argel, Air Force Capt. Jeremy Fresques, Spc. Joseph Kennedy, Senior Airman Jonathan Yelner, Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kirven, and Pvt Robert Frantz, just to name a few. Share their stories and honor their service.
I will leave you with this last thought: on Monday and every Memorial Day after, honor our deceased veterans with the highest regard and deepest respect for their service and sacrifices that gave us the gift of freedom. May God bless them, their families and this great country of ours.