Many Americans celebrate Memorial Day. Each year, I watch the “Thank You, Veterans!” posts roll in, and each year I’m frustrated that we just don’t seem to understand the reason for the day.
I wrote this Facebook post in 2016. It’s not about Memorial Day, but I wanted to share it again because it’s a reason I care so much about defining the different military holidays. Also, a lady in a postal store recently told me, “Thank you for your service,” and I was mad about it all over again, both because every serviceman and -woman I know hates that and because I don’t deserve it.
Memorial: “A statue or structure established to remind people of a person or event.”
In Memoriam: “In memory of (a dead person).”
In 1996, it was re-discovered that freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina exhumed the bodies of 260 Union soldiers at a racetrack where they had been buried en masse, reinterred them with honor, and then held a parade at said racetrack on May 1, 1865, less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered. What an incredible first Memorial Day. Another official “first celebration” happened in Waterloo, New York on May 5, 1866, just after the Civil War (which is still America’s single bloodiest at 620,000-750,000 casualties). What officially started as Decoration Day for fallen Civil War soldiers happened on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetary, and continued as an organized event in the northern states. After WWI’s ~116,500 soldiers fell, all of our military personnel who die fighting our wars are honored on what gradually become known as Memorial Day nationwide.
Here is a VA factsheet on America’s Wars, including battle deaths and those that occurred in theater (any area that is or might become involved in war operations) or were nontheater (perhaps died outside the warzone but had been injured in the course of war, or in a training accident preparing for battle, or any number of things). I urge you to glance at it. Then move on to this Department of Defense Casualty Status Release, which describes in simple, stark, emotionless numbers the cost of American military life in the ongoing War on Terror.
I don’t know everything. Not at all. The more I live, the more I realize how much I don’t know and how much I haven’t seen! But I do know that Memorial Day is about honoring those military members who have made the ultimate sacrifice. That sentiment doesn’t have to get political, either. Just think about the powerful, heart-wrenching, permanent truth of death at war for a minute. If you’re lucky, you haven’t lost someone close to you, but take a moment to consider those who have. Show the families left behind the respect of recognizing what this day is really about, and be okay with feeling deeply in the sad direction in a show of solidarity and appreciation. You get to do that just for today.
Don’t say, “Happy Memorial Day.” Honoring the dead is much different from happiness for loved ones who miss them terribly. Accompany someone to a gravesite-if they want you to. Let them lead any conversation that might happen (be okay with sad silence). Laugh through pain if possible, but also be okay just feeling grief, together.
Thank you to those who gave everything.