Here is a call to action. Do one thing to learn more about the significance of Memorial Day. Do one thing to learn more about a person or a battle; visit a battlefield, national cemetery, or maybe the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Do one thing to remember and honor the military service members who have given their lives in defense of our nation. Do one thing to make sure you don’t lose sight of the significance of Memorial Day in the barrage of car and mattress sale advertisements, barbeques and road trips. I’m asking you to do this, so I can feel less guilty about the times that I’d forgotten, or never knew.
I am a veteran. I served for over 22 years and received my first active duty military ID at the age of 19. Admittedly, at the age of 19, I didn’t really understand the meaning of Memorial Day. I’d grown up in a middle-class neighborhood in Minnesota and saw one friend whose brother flew for the Navy, I knew of only a handful of people in my community who had served or planned to serve. It wasn’t intentional naivete; it wasn’t intentional omission; it was more about my environment. In retrospect, I had never known the true meaning of Memorial Day so there was no danger of me forgetting Memorial Day’s significance and history.
I wish I knew more about Memorial Day when I was younger. I have thought about this a lot, sensitized by reflections of my youth and the growing conversations about a gap between the civilian and military worlds. Admiral Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has often spoken of the growing civil-military divide. In essence, he talks of a disconnect between the military and the civilians they defend. A lower percentage of the population serves in the military, a gap is building in understanding who and what are servicemen are asked to do, and for many the fact that we are in the midst of the longest war in U.S. history. I know Memorial Day is significant now. So perhaps sharing why I don’t forget is a contribution I can make.
I don’t forget because the Navy allowed me to be immersed in history and stand on the very ground that Memorial Day is about. The Navy allowed me to “see” where men and women who have sacrificed for the country have stood. I have stood on the shoreline of the Pacific Island of Iwo Jima where over 6,200 Americans were killed in a 36-day long battle. As we stood on the beach that Marines landed on, I was struck by the black sand; it was heavy and your feet sank more deeply than any beach on which I’d ever stood.
I imagined being weighed down by equipment, a weapon, and ammunition and wondered what it must have been like. From there we hiked to the top of Mt. Suribachi. It as hot and humid and the smell of sulfur made the air seem heavy and thick. We had the luxury of a paved road unlike the men who had to fight for every inch to raise a flag 554 feet above the ocean. And as I stood at the top, I stared at the dog tags that draped the monument at the peak, I understood Memorial Day.
I made my first deployment on the USS George Washington and the first assignment was to participate in the 50th anniversary of D-Day. We cruised through the English Channel and saw the coastline of France and I saw the coastline for which the Allies had battled and many American lives were lost. I learned of the incredible reverence in which these soldiers are held to this day, by the citizens whose land was liberated. I thought of the first time I jumped out of an airplane during airborne school over Ft. Benning, GA and wondered what an 18-year-old kid from Georgia must have thought in 1944 as he prepared to jump into France. And I thought of all the men that died, and I understood Memorial Day.
I stood in Arlington Cemetery. I stared at the white gravestones which seemed to be as far as I could see. I stood next to my friends and colleagues as we solemnly marched behind the horse-drawn procession of a good friend and USMC Major who lost his life in the skies during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005. I felt the emotions of the wife, the mother, the father, the daughter, squadron mates and friends that all knew and felt the loss. I listened to Taps and I cried. And I understood Memorial Day.
This is a call to action. Do one thing to learn more about the significance of Memorial Day. Do one thing to learn more about a person or a battle; visit a battlefield, national cemetery, or maybe the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Do one thing to remember and honor the military service members who have given their lives in defense of our nation. It will help you to remember.