I’ve become a stickler about some things after years of editing stories for newspapers and summing them up for a headline. Maybe that’s why at this time every year I think in terse but not harsh headline terms: “Memorial Day is for deceased soldiers.”
Memorial Day’s mission is simple: Honor members of America’s armed forces who have died while serving in the U.S. armed forces.
The holiday’s roots are in the Civil War (620,00 dead), when people would decorate the graves of those killed in battle. It was originally known as Decoration Day.
There was initially no Memorial Day for soldiers of the American Revolution (4,435 dead), War of 1812 (2,260 dead) or Mexican War (13,283). But fallen soldiers have been honored since the 1860s for the sacrifices in those wars as well as World Wars I and II (116,516 and 405,399 dead, respectively), Korea (36,574), Vietnam (58,220 dead) and our most recent wars in the Gulf (383), Iraq (4,500 dead) and Afghanistan (2,381 dead). The toll for the ongoing Afghanistan war, our longest war, keeps rising.
Thinking about such tolls numbs the mind, and makes the heart ache.
Over the years Memorial Day has morphed into a second Veterans Day, or is used by non-military groups to honor members who have died during the year.
We have a day to honor veterans on Nov. 11. My mom and dad were veterans. I pause on Veterans Day to remember their service, sometimes post a pic of mom’s Navy hat or dad’s dogtags on Facebook. They never saw combat, and thankfully weren’t killed while serving our country. Memorial Day isn’t for their memory.
I can’t begrudge those who want to use the day to remember others who are gone, though. It doesn’t seem a leap to include law enforcement and firefighters killed in the line of duty, as Maryland does on the first Friday in May with Fallen Heroes Day. That’s a day that should have national support. They should be remembered.
Part of me wants to include victims and heroes of mass shootings in the remembrances, but there should be another day set aside for that. Then the calls to seek real solutions to avert these tragedies could be clearly heard.
It’s important to keep the day in focus. Memorial Day honors the memory of those who died, offering the supreme sacrifice, while serving America. By serving America they help preserve freedoms that we take for granted, whether it’s traveling freely throughout the country, speaking our mind on social media or working in a free press.
I have never been in the armed forces. I will never be one of those honored on Memorial Day.
I am fully grateful for the sacrifice of all who have given their lives so that I and all Americans may enjoy the freedoms they helped preserve. Even if you did not watch a Memorial Day parade or take part in a ceremony at a local cemetery, I hope you paused for a moment to remember.
By pausing to remember, you honor. In honoring, you thank. In thanking, their sacrifice is consecrated. As it should be.
Gary Presley is the pagination director for AIM Media Midwest. You can reach him at [email protected]