We all know that Memorial Day is the day to celebrate those past and present who have served their country, many giving what Lincoln called the “last full measure of devotion.” The tradition of honoring our soldiers goes back further than the declaration of the last Monday in May. It began after the Civil War as “Decoration Day” in the North and in the South as “Confederate Memorial Day.”
Civilizations dating back to Roman times honored their war dead with ceremonies and honor. It has been in more recent times that not only fallen soldiers, but those who have served and are still serving are included in the ceremonies. Here in the United States, this has taken on special meaning with the wars in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan as well as many other skirmishes around the globe. In addition, those who rushed to serve after 9/11 deserve special recognition for seeing something so horrible and using it as a motivator to serve and protect their country from those who would do us harm.
Many recent events have also shown us that not only the men and women in the armed services, but those closer to home, the first responders: Police, Fire, EMS, and even teachers are worthy of our honor and celebration on Memorial Day. Too often lately, we’ve seen them as well as our soldiers in harms way give the ultimate sacrifice. There is no dedicated holiday for them. There should be and unless and until then, Memorial Day seems a perfect day to honor them as well.
Our war in Iraq has wound down and we’re beginning to bring home the rest of our soldiers from Afghanistan. There are other scary places in the world that they could be called to at any moment. Let’s not forget the special forces guys who are out there doing things you don’t really like to think about, but that make this world a safer place. Most that know me know that I’m a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s work. In “A Few Good Men,” when defending her client Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway says that she “likes them so much,” “Because they stand on a wall and say, “Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch.”
One of my favorite movies is Saving Private Ryan. For all of the great action and story about a group of soldiers who became family, the final scene of the movie sums it up. Private James Ryan, 50 years later standing over the grave of Captain Miller, who gave his life in a last ditch effort to make sure that he got home to his parents who had lost all of their other sons in the war. That scene will have me crying my eyes out every time I watch it.
When I watch it, I think of the final part of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth
One of the most beautiful places in this grand country of ours is Arlington National Cemetery. If you’ve never been there, it needs to be on your bucket list. Business travel used to take me to the DC area several times a year and every single time, I would make time to go over there and wander through the sections, looking at the names on the gravestones, seeing the different memorials and stopping to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. It is a special sight to see and the men who guard that tomb are among the most honorable this country has to honor.
I found a quote today, by Eric Burdon as I was doing a little reading that I instantly liked. It reminds us, as I’ve said to honor the dead, but also the living:
On Memorial Day, I don’t want to only remember the combatants. There were also those who came out of the trenches as writers and poets, who started preaching peace, men and women who have made this world a kinder place to live.
On Monday, when you’re grilling out, enjoying the lake, spending time with your family, take a minute to remember all of those who “gave the last full measure of devotion,” those who have served and those who are still out there today, standing on that wall, watching over you tonight.