Memorial Day is our national holiday for remembering and honoring the patriotic men and women who sacrificed their lives in the military service of this country to preserve the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Many Americans do not know its real meaning according to past Gallup polling.
Memorial Day was officially established by the 1971 National Holiday Act to memorialize our brave military members who gave their lives defending this country. It is always observed the last Monday of May (May 31st this year) and starts the summer vacation season. The 2000 National Moment of Remembrance Act requests that we pause at 3pm for one minute as an act of national unity to remember America’s fallen military heroes.
“The true heroes, the real heroes are the boys who fought and died, and will never come home.” – AUDIE MURPHY (Texan, most decorated World War II soldier, western movie actor, 1924-1971).
Memorial Day should not be confused with Veterans Day (every November 11th) recognizing living and deceased military veterans who honorably served any length of time and are no longing serving or Armed Forces Day (3rd Saturday in May) recognizing military men and women currently serving. We have three different national observances commemorating three distinct categories of military service.
The genesis of this memorial for military members who made the supreme sacrifice came from Southern and Northern women who decorated the graves of all fallen soldiers with flowers in respectful remembrance during and after the Civil War.
The first American revolutionary fatality was Crispus Attucks, an American stevedore of African and Native descent, killed by the British during the Boston Massacre over 250 years ago. Eight citizen-soldiers fell a few years later near Lexington, Massachusetts during the beginning of American Revolution armed hostilities. 1,354,644 have perished fighting for this country and 40,031 remain missing in action. This ultimate sacrifice is still being made by our brave military men and women fighting the prolonged war on international terrorism. There will be more as long as we humans remain a warring species.
“Only the dead have seen the end of war” – PLATO (Greek Philosopher)
Patriotic ceremonies and events are held throughout the country, including the National Memorial Day Concert on the Capitol lawn and a ceremonial wreath placed by the President on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
“Looking across this field, we see the scale of heroism and sacrifice. All who are buried here understood their duty. All stood to protect America.” – GEORGE W. BUSH (Texan and 43rd President at Arlington)
On Memorial Day, the American flag is traditionally raised to the top of the staff in the morning and lowered to half-staff until noon when it is raised back to full staff for the rest of the day. Lowering the flag to half-staff represents remembrance of those fallen. Return to full staff symbolizes their memory being raised by the living who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up and continue the fight for liberty and justice.
Another American tradition observed during Memorial Day weekend is the placing of coins on graves of deceased military members who lost their lives serving our country. It is a symbolic act of respect and gratitude for their service and sacrifice. Coins of different denominations have distinct meanings (Penny – you knew the deceased, Nickel – you and the deceased attended basic training together, Dime – you and the deceased served together, and Quarter – you were present when the deceased was killed). The custom of placing coins with a deceased originated in ancient Greek mythology.
Vietnam War veterans established a different but related coin tradition. Change of any denomination can be left at the grave of a deceased military comrade as the “down-payment” on a promise to buy him or her a drink when you meet in the afterlife.
Wherever you may be this Memorial Day, please pause for a moment to remember with patriotic pride and genuine gratitude our brave military men and women who sacrificed their precious lives for our cherished American liberties.
“You silent tents of green,
We deck with fragrant flowers,
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.”
– HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW (American poet, 1807-1882)
Brigadier General John Compere, US Army (Retired)
Disabled American Veteran (Vietnam Era)
Board Member, Military Religious Freedom Foundation