The True Meaning of Memorial Day

I’ll never forget the 1st time I saw a soldier die in combat.

My two high school friends and I were walking across our FOB (forward operating base) in Ramadi, Iraq. The chow hall was on the other side of the base so were left to walk each day to grab our grub. We made it about mid-way before the incoming round siren started to blare.

The only cover we could find fast enough was a puny palm tree. It was better than nothing so we rushed over. No sooner than we secured our position behind that tree that several rockets and mortals tore apart six makeshift barracks that had been constructed for an incoming unit.

Naturally we ran over to help. The first soldier we saw was a woman holding her hand and screaming. It was apparent that she was in shock. When we were able to get her to a bunker and calm her down, we could see that she was missing half of her hand.

One of my friends stayed with her to help as we ran around the other side of the burning buildings. By the time we got there, several soldiers were loading the lifeless body of a young man on a gator that would bring him to the the medic. If you’ve ever experienced death up close and personal, you would agree that it was too late for him by that point.

Unfortunately, his death is just one story of the hundreds-of-thousands of heroic military members who gave their all to protect our way of life.

This day is for them.

It saddens me that so many people don’t really understand what Memorial Day is and, instead, use it as an excuse to buy discounted furniture and fire up the grill to kick of summer.

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with those things. I enjoy a great sale and a bit of BBQ myself but I think it’s time we honor the men and women who died in order to preserve our way of life.

The Meaning of Memorial Day

Memorial Day, often recognized as the start of summer is NOT actually the start of summer but happens to coincide with it.

The first Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day), was held in in Waterloo, New York in 1868. Over 24 towns and cities claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. President Johnson ended the debate in 1966 by officially declaring Waterloo as the birthplace of this special day.

It is difficult or impossible to ever conclude where Memorial Day actually started but we do know that it was first observed shorty after the end of the Civil War. On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic proclaimed:

The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.
— General John Logan

In 2000, The National Moment of Remembrance Resolution was passed and, while I applaud congress for passing a resolution for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to taps”, I think that was the general idea behind the entire day of Memorial Day. Here are six activities that you can enjoy today to observe the ultimate sacrifice of those brave men and women who died protecting our way of life.

Memorial Weekend Activities

Fly a Flag

At the very least, you should seriously consider flying an American Flag this Memorial Day. It’s cheap, it’s easy and it says a lot about your patriotism. You can pick one up for $15.00 at Walmart or Target.

Just remember your proper flag etiquette if you do decide to fly your flag.

  • Use a flag that is good condition.
  • Do not allow the flag to touch the ground.
  • Don’t fly the flag after dark.
  • In general, respect the flag as it is a symbol of America and the men and women you are honoring.

Teach Your Children

I sing to my children every night. One evening I was feeling particularly goofy as I sang them The Star-Spangled Banner to my children in a manner that was…less than formal. My oldest son called me out. “Dad, how do you think the men and women who are fighting right now would feel if you sang that song that way to them?” Gulp….

My 7 year old and my 4 year old can both sing The Star-Spangled Banner and recite the Pledge of Allegiance word for word.

Stories of America, how this country was founded, and the struggles and victories Americans faced are as important as any math problem they could learn in school. We share these memories through songs and stories about our turbulent past.

Since the dawn of man, stories have been a way for us to pass down traditions, legends, and information to future generations. I fear that we have not done as good of job as our parents and their parents before them in sharing the story of America, and what makes it great.

Use this day as an opportunity to teach your children that there are very real threats to freedom not only here but across the globe. Teach them that there are men and women who are brave and courageous and willing to stand up in the face of hate and evil.

Some day this nation and planet will be our children’s. What will they know about how it came to be?

Memorial Day Parade

Who doesn’t love a good parade? The parade itself is very American. It seems we use any excuse we can to hold a parade: Christmas, Easter, 4th of July, Labor Day, Mardi Gras, Memorial Day, New Year’s, Pioneer Day (Utah), Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day, and many more.

Why not take this opportunity to enjoy a day outside with others honoring the sacrifices of so many? You’ll have the chance to rub shoulders with your neighbors, collect some candy, cheer for the American Legion, and get doused by the fire truck hoses. Good times for all!

But most importantly you’ll show your support for our military members and let them know how you feel about them and the job they’re doing for us all.

Give Back

In many ways we’ve become a nation of WIIFM (What’s in it for me?).  Memorial Day is a great day to give back especially to veterans and their families.

You can check with your local Veteran’s Administration and American Legion for service opportunities. They always need and appreciate the help. This year my wife volunteered to help the American Legion sell Poppies. Money raised selling these paper Poppies is used to support military members and their families.

In 1915 Moina Michael, founder of the Memorial Poppy wrote:

We cherish too, the Poppy red that grows on fields where valor led. It seems to signal to the skies that blood of heroes never dies.
— Moina Michael

This is a great day to give back.

Visit a Veteran

What a great day to visit a veteran. Don’t miss the opportunity to thank someone for their service. As a Army Veteran, I can tell you that a thank you goes a long, long way in validating a military member’s decision to serve this great nation.

The sad reality is that many military members don’t hear “thank you” enough.

Do you have a family member that has served? Is there a nursing home close by that you can visit? Each year my family and I visit the grave-site of her late grandfather (we bring him a diet coke and a snickers). It’s a great time for us to reflect upon his service, think about something other than ourselves, and teach our kids (refer to activity 2) about the men and women that have served this great nation.

Have BBQ

Okay, so maybe you think I’ve been a little too rigid in what I think every American should do on Memorial Day. And, perhaps I’m a bit biased in my efforts to bring the true meaning of Memorial Day to light.

The reality is that it is the kick-off of summer. It is a chance (and an excuse) to get with friends. After all I just said, you should know that we are holding a BBQ this Memorial Day too. And, I think it’s a great thing!

May I suggest this year (before you crack open the beer or grill the meat) that you reflect collectively about the sacrifice of so many to make this nation what it is today. It is those soldiers and their great efforts that have given us the opportunity to get together and have a BBQ in the first place (among other things).

Take a moment to share a few thoughts with your friends, wear your favorite military shirt, or hold the BBQ in honor of a veteran family member or friend. Just do something to let people know who you are, who you support, and how proud you are to be an American!

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