Finding Meaning in Memorial Day
On Memorial Day, in the United States, many of us pause from our regular workday routines to honor those who died while serving our nation. The tradition dates back to post-Civil War days. Here’s an excerpt from Memorial Day History, a website that claims to share the true meaning of the holiday:
Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.
Memorial Day History chastises those of us who think Memorial Day is an occasion to honor and remember all those we’ve lost. I will admit that I have lost the “true meaning” of the holiday, in its original intent. For me, Memorial Day is a time to reflect upon all of the dead whose lives have mattered to me. Some of those are former soldiers — though I never personally knew anyone who died in battle — but most are dear humans who never heard the call to arms and never stood on a battle line.
I don’t apologize for this. I will continue to honor my own lost loved ones as I observe Memorial Day. But today, in light of what I just read, I am taking time to reflect on the lives of those in military service who shaped my life. Perhaps my story is similar to yours, if you’re a fellow Baby Boomer.
But perhaps you are much younger than I. Maybe you don’t relate to WWII at all, but to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the War in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan — or some other armed conflict. Or, maybe you live in a different nation. Maybe you’re serving your nation right now — or your son or daughter, wife or husband, father or mother is wearing battle gear and praying to survive another day.
If your story is different — and most are — your reflections will be widely varied from mine. Still, I urge you to reflect. How would your life be different — or would you have a life at all — if not for the sacrifices of those who served your country? And what responsibility do you have to those who died?
My father served in both the Marines and the Army in World War II. With the U.S. actively engaged on two fronts, he was eager to join up, despite the fact that he was only 16. First, he had to get his father’s permission (though family lore says his dad, a preacher, was happy to see his wild son join the military to get some structure in his life). He advanced quickly, becoming the youngest enlisted man ever to hold the rank he attained (if he were still alive, or if I were a better historian, I would be able to tell you what that rank was). My uncle, a lifelong Marine, and Dad’s buddy before the two men married sisters, once told me that what my dad, David Wasson, did was a remarkable feat for such a young man.
Until his body was cremated, in December of 2002, my father’s left arm was emblazoned with a tattoo of the Marine Corps symbol. By then, the tattoo was disfigured by more than half a century’s aging skin, but he wore it with pride — a badge of honor.
He narrowly missed the fighting in Japan, as he was on a vessel heading from Hawaii to Japan on the day Victory in Japan was declared. Had he arrived even a day earlier in that battle zone, I most likely wouldn’t be alive to write this. So I have a special reason, as do so many other Baby Boomers, to be grateful for those who served our country in the Pacific theatre and in Europe. More than 100,000 U.S. soldiers died in the Pacific during WWII. Their sacrifices gave me my dad, and in doing so, they gave me a chance at life.
After mustering out of the Marines, my father and his young wife headed back to his home turf in Missouri, so he could start college and they could begin a new life together. But once their first child was on her way, my father once again sought out the military and enlisted in the Army. I’m not sure why he didn’t return to the Marines, but because of his choice, two of my sisters and I later became “Army brats.”
Military housing was the first life I knew and the first I remember. As a family member with the Occupation force in Germany after WWII, I spent my first birthday on German soil. I used to wonder why my parents hadn’t allowed us to mingle with German kids and learn the language. We were at the perfect ages: my older sister, Belinda, was 2 1/2 to my 1. My next sister, Betsy (now Liz), would later be born in Heidelberg. I didn’t learn until many years into adulthood that dependents living in Germany at that time we were not considered to be particularly safe. We were “the occupiers,” after all, and there was still a lot of tension in Europe. So, I’m thankful, too, for the soldiers who kept my family and me out of harm’s way while my dad and his colleagues were helping to restore order and security to a nation ravaged by war and divided by hatred.
Of course, I also think back to the beginning, to the origins of this nation I love and to the people who fought for her independence. (But that’s another holiday.) Or, I could consider wars in my ancestral homelands (there were so many, as I’m a true product of the American Melting Pot), but today I focus on WWII. And I am grateful for all those I never knew, who gave me the opportunity for life itself and, especially, life in a free nation.
But what does showing my gratitude really entail? What are my responsibilities to those who died for this nation I live in?
When I’m called upon to vote, I need to be informed – and then I need to follow through and cast my ballot wisely. When I see pollution, I need to step up and do something about it. When I learn of bigotry and hatred in the media or in my neighborhood, I have a responsibility to visibly object and try to correct it. When I see my leaders interacting with other nations in ways I think are dangerous to us all, I must not stand by silent. When I see myself and my fellow citizens squandering the planet’s resources in mindless consumerism and over-relying upon fossil fuels, I must not participate in the problem, but work toward a solution. You see, I have been given a rich life in this nation — on this planet — and have been entrusted with protecting it each and every day.
To me, celebrating on Memorial Day is not enough. I must honor the memory of those who died in service to my country — and my father, who lived into old age — by working for a better future for all of us, in every way that I can.
What does Memorial Day mean to you?
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