It began in the states, after the Civil War. Some 600,000 soldiers had died in that horrid war between North and South, and virtually all families had been touched tragically in some way. Decoration Day it was called then, and the name evolved through the years, gaining official recognition a little less than a century later.
Memorial Day still will be one of decoration, as veterans’ groups and others honor those who died during military service by placing small flags on their graves. Arlington will be a sea of such flags, as will other cemeteries where veterans rest.
Veterans Day honors all who served. Memorial Day gives the nation pause to remember those who died while in service. The “ultimate sacrifice” it is called, and it was and is a shared sacrifice.
For those whom we recognize and eulogize today left behind mothers, fathers, siblings, wives, husbands and children. In many cases, those who died were in the prime of their lives, looking toward days of peace and the happiness of going home to their families.
They would think, in the far-off corners where they served, of that happy day when their children would once again embrace them and they would sit ’round the hearth and tell stories of their service.
Fathers at home would take their first full breaths as a child’s return neared. Mothers would ready the favorite meals. Spouses would tell their children how exciting it would be to go pick up their returning parent.
But for so many, there were no reunions. Former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford, a World War II paratrooper, recalled knowing “too many mothers who never smiled again.”
On Memorial Day, we pause to reflect and remember and appreciate. And to mourn.
War sometimes is glorified in movies. And, yes, this nation has gone to war to protect itself and its people, and to defend democracy and freedom wherever it has been threatened. We have called upon millions of men and women over more than 200 years now to wear a uniform and do their duty even if that duty meant dying for their country or their country’s cause.
As we walk through the cemeteries of their resting places today, on Memorial Day, and see all those markers and all those flags, we understand that, though war is sometimes necessary in the defense of freedom, there ultimately is little glory in it compared with the sacrifices that are made.
America has not fought its last war. Of this we may be certain. Those who join the military service know from the first day that “serving in peacetime” can turn into a foreign deployment overnight. And they stand ready to answer that call.
Memorial Day is our modest chance to offer our own salute to all those who have answered. It is a recognition that began during and after a war that could have destroyed the United States, a war that even now divides some in different regions of the country.
But it represents as well a recognition of our national determination, our unity in times of crisis and what patriotism really means. Mainly, however, it salutes and recognizes the men and women who defended our sacred freedom and died doing it. To repay them is impossible. To remember them is our own duty.