The three-day Memorial Day weekend is here: That means parades, barbecues, Little League and soccer tournaments, weekend getaways and maybe some fireworks on the agenda. Red, white and blue bunting waves at us from storefronts and lampposts, and just try to walk into any bakery without being overwhelmed by tri-color frosting.
What a shame we’re not doing all that much actual memorializing or remembering.
According to the website USMemorialDay.org, the holiday to pay tribute soldiers who fall in the line of active duty began officially in 1868. Many towns have laid claim to the origin of what has now become our national holiday honoring and remembering those who have given their lives in the armed service of our country.
Yes, I’ll concede it’s a good thing that local celebrations are displays of town pride and patriotic spirit; the day is laden with civic participation, often marked with parades populated with school bands and boy scouts. Politicians speak, people barbeque, Stop & Shop sells fireworks.
But how much of Memorial Day’s true meaning is lost on this one day that’s meant to remind us of the high price of our freedom to display that pride and civic pomp?
Yes, there is ‘celebration’ as part of it, but that’s secondary, and it exists only because we are free to celebrate, thanks to the hard-won battles and dedication of those who served to maintain those freedoms for us.
What should come first is remembering that individuals made the ultimate sacrifice for us to be able to continue to mark such occasion freely.
Held in that one lone day of remembering is the possibility that respect and memorial is carried through the other 364.
Not long ago, a video circulated around the Web that sat heavily with me. It was shot at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and showed the guard breaking his regular, ritualized sentry to yell a warning to the crowd after a few spectators started laughing.
“It is requested that everyone maintains a level of silence, and respect!”
It was an event that sadly, was not unique. When I did a Google search for “Tomb of Unknown Soldier, guard yells,” I hit dozens of possible results.
Just last year I visited Arlington National Cemetery with my family, and I find it surprising that such a lack of respect could have ever taken place. You’re surrounded with reminders of dedication and sacrifice no matter where you look around the sadly majestic place.
Arlington was originally one tour points we had considered leaving out of our short trip—with smaller kids, it would be logistically difficult to navigate and perhaps the meaning would be lost on them.
But something urged us to hop off the tram at the Cemetery stop. We watched that changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. We saw for ourselves the respectful ceremony conducted every half-hour, every day of every year and learned about the tradition it’s grounded in. This tribute has been conducted 24/7 since 1937, in any kind of weather, without fail, reflecting the appropriate honor due those who make the ultimate sacrifice.
How someone could laugh during it is beyond me.
At Arlington, we passed rows upon rows of headstones which underscored some of the scope of war-caused death. And then we saw current soldiers walking toward a funeral for a fallen comrade, reminding us of the price we continue to pay in the battles our country fights today.
It became clear our stop at Arlington was likely one of the most important of our stay in DC.
We learned that in marking the history of those who have fallen in the line of duty, it helps remind us that there are individuals who continue their service to this country today.
As a nation, we need to be more than a bit better with our commitment and dedication to those who do still serve.
When I see members of our armed forces at airports or in shops, I watch to see how the citizens around them react. Quite often there’s no reaction at all. These men and women are due our respect and thanks, yet how many extend a handshake or hold a door, or offer just a simple ‘thank you’?
Last year I overheard a young man at a convenience store ask if there was an opportunity for an ‘armed forces discount,’ something I’d never heard of before. The clerk looked at him strangely, and said a simple “No.” Perhaps in communities where there are more active duty soldiers, this does exist.
Think about the statistics for current soldiers to remind you of the sacrifice: In 2012 alone, 61 active duty soldiers killed themselves, and 34 reservists have done the same. We lost 6,462 American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there are countless others who have come home needing mental health services and intensive medical help, according to the Wounded Warrior Project.
Beyond health needs, the unemployment rate for young veterans is alarmingly high. While 2012 stats show it seems to be dropping, the average unemployment rate for these returning soldiers hit 30 percent in 2011.
It’s clear that more attention needs to be paid to helping veterans cope with the array of challenges they face upon their return. So too, do programs supporting the families who remain at home while their loved ones fight abroad need to be strengthened with appropriate funding and community support.
So perhaps with each turn of the Ferris wheel at the carnival this weekend, with each burger you flip on the grill, keep in mind the sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers on the battlefield.
Memorializing them properly on Memorial Day is the start. Looking to help those who are coming home may be the best kind of respect and memory all our soldiers deserve, every other day of the year.