Growing up my parents both labored to teach me the value of honoring the men and women who have or are serving in America's armed forces. My father is a veteran of the Vietnam War and my mother is a red-white-and-blue-blooded patriotic southerner whose roots go all the way back to Colonel James Barnett who fought in the 6th and 2nd Virginia Regiments which served under General George Washington during the famous Delaware River crossing at Trenton, NJ when Washington's forces rowed across the river to surprise England's Hessian mercenaries on December 26, 1776.
Colonel Barnett served his fledgling country until the war's end when he returned to Virginia to enjoy the freedoms that he and his comrades had so recently fought for. They were, and are, freedom which many in my family line have served and sacrificed to protect and defend, from the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812, then the Civil War, at the Alamo, and in World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
Many came home from their respective conflicts; many did not and their bodies lay in states of honor in cemeteries across the nation and around the world. It is a humbling experience to walk the hallowed grounds of Arlington or other American military cemeteries to find the resting places of these ancestors who "gave the ultimate sacrifice" in the service to their country, this country, the United States of America.
I admit that given the cost paid by so many families throughout America's history, a part of me wishes more of my fellow-citizens paid closer attention to the true meaning of Memorial Day, a holiday whose original name almost holds more meaning: Decoration Day. Indeed, one veteran from Indiana spoke those same concerns in 1913 when he lamented that people born after the Civil War had a "tendency... to forget the purpose of Memorial Day and make it a day for games, races and revelry, instead of a day of memory and tears" (yes, some called it "Memorial Day" back then).
After America's bloody Civil War was ended at the Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, just one month later, on May 5 General John A. Logan called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month, saying, “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.”
He added something that every American should read and pay attention to on Memorial Day:
"We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or the coming generations, that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic. If other eyes grow dull, and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains to us."
-General John Logan, General Order No. 11, May 5, 1868
This is something that is commonly misunderstood by otherwise well-meaning Americans. Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Armed Forces day are commonly mixed up and celebrated in similar fashions, but they are not the same thing as they have subtle, and significant, differences.
- • Memorial Day (celebrated the last Monday in May) is a day to honor all those who have died in the service of our country. Some also use Memorial Day to honor those who retired from the service and have now passed on.
- • Veterans Day (celebrated on November 11) is a day to celebrate those who have retired from military service. Formerly Armistice Day.
- • Armed Forces Day (celebrated the third Saturday in May) is for honoring those currently serving in our armed forces.
Decoration Day (Memorial Day) was originally established to honor those who died during the Civil War, but after America entered World War I, then II, then Korea, and eventually Vietnam, it became apparent that honoring all those who have perished in the service to our country was the right thing to do. On June 28, 1968 the 90th United States Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (Public Law 90–363), which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. This helped create a three-day weekend for federal employees, but it also allowed an official federal holiday to honor our dead and to celebrate our freedoms and this nation.
So, how DO we celebrate Memorial Day? I will not presume to tell anyone how to celebrate their holiday weekend, because we SHOULD enjoy every minute of it, but I do have some suggestions on ways to make this special day special each year. It is NOT just another three-day weekend as so many treat it. In fact, in 2002 the Veterans of Foreign Wars declared that "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."
First, let us honor those who have died in the service of our country by choosing to make it a day about them. I'm not saying ALL day, since enjoying our freedoms is a great way to honor those who died for them, but we should remember that Memorial Day is "the day we pay homage to all those who didn’t come home. This is not Veterans Day, it’s not a celebration, it is a day of solemn contemplation over the cost of freedom." (Tamra Bolton, author and journalist).
Before you spend the day celebrating with your family, remember that our fallen servicemen and women were also brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, etc. who do not get to spend the day with their loved ones.
Here are 30 suggestions on ways to "pay homage to all those who didn't come home" through "solemn contemplation":
- Visit a veteran's gravesite to pay your respects
- A powerful experience is also to volunteer at your local cemetery to help place American flags over our heroes' graves
- Visit your local Veteran's Memorial to honor your city's or state's fallen
- Visit a local military history museum to learn more about the conflicts our servicemen and women have fought in
- Participate / attend or even organize a Memorial Day flag raising or wreath laying ceremony
- Attend a Memorial Day concert or musical presentation, or even better, sit down with your family or friends to watch the annual PBS Memorial Day concert
- Look at photos or wartime letters of your ancestors who have served in our armed forces
- Make a list of the freedoms that you enjoy that so any have fought and died to protect
- Find a veteran's interview from The Veteran's History Project and list to their story in their words
- Consider setting up a Missing Man / Fallen Soldier Table in your kitchen, front porch, restaurant, etc.
- Decorate your home or yard for Memorial Day. July 4th is not the only day to express patriotism and gratitude for our freedoms and rights and fly an American Flag for all to see, but please remember to do so at half-mast as this is a national day of mourning.
- Visit a local Honor Field if your city or town has set one up. And if not, consider organizing one!
- Share on social media the photo of a fallen soldier or express gratitude for those who have died in the service of our country
- Observe the National Moment of Silence at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day
- Sit down with a living veteran and ask them about their experiences in the service, especially their closest buddies. Compassionately ask if there is anyone they honor on Memorial Day and how they choose to honor them.
- Write a letter or email to a veteran that you know, or you could send a letter to a veteran via A Million Thanks
- Learn to play or sing a patriotic song, or listen to music or songs that were popular during particular conflicts.
- Grab some sidewalk chalk and create a patriotic display that will be seen by people walking through your neighborhood, park or business complex
- Consider donating to a veterans support organization such as The Gary Sinise Foundation and America's Gold Star Families.
- Watch a patriotic movie with your friends or family. While many are more "Hollywood-ized" than others, there are many fantastic movies out there that will deepen your appreciation for those who have served in our country's armed forces
- I also highly recommend watching a documentary on one of the many conflicts our nation has been involved in, especially if you can find one that focuses on the stories of the average soldier, sailor or airman who fought in it
- If you know a Gold Star Family, consider calling them, or dropping off a note or treat to help them on this emotional day
- Volunteer at a local veterans support organization; oftentimes these veterans lost buddies in the service and volunteering is a great way to honor both the living and the dead
- Contact your local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post and ask if they have any events or ways that you can get involved on Memorial Day
- Shop at a veteran-owned business to support those who served our country. Yes, this activity fits both Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but it helps support our servicemen and women who, as mentioned, oftentimes are honoring a friend or ancestor who died in the service
- Parents: take some time today to explain to your children (and even grandchildren if you have them!) what Memorial Day is all about and why we should celebrate it.
- Put together a care package to send to someone currently serving in our armed forces (or even retired veterans!). Soldiers Angels is a great organization that can help you get some ideas, or you can help them send packages to those currently deployed
- For those of you with young children at home, these coloring pages provide a wonderful opportunity for them to get to know different uniforms and aspects of our military history
- Invite a military member's family over to your BBQ or to your outdoor adventures, especially those who have a loved one deployed.
- If you keep a journal, write down your thoughts and feelings at the end of the day regarding our freedoms and those who have sacrificed so much for them
These 30 suggestions are simply that: suggestions. At the end of the day, we must each as individuals and families, decide how and how much we will "remember and honor" on Memorial Day each year, just as we all must decide how and how much we "remember and honor" our rights and freedoms as Americans. I am grateful for all the men and women throughout our history who "signed a blank check" when they decided to put on our country's uniforms to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic...".
As England Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of their own heroes in World War II, "Never was so much owed by so many to so few." We as Americans, who are so many, owe so much to these hallowed few whose graves around the world call to us:
"When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrows these gave their today."
- Jeremy C. Holm
Memorial Day Information for Kids
To learn more about the 11th Airborne Division in World War II, please consider purchasing a copy of our books on the Angels: