Here is the original piece I wrote many years ago… still relevant I think, even if it was presumptuous to quote the likes of McArthur and Holmes…
Memories on Memorial Day
On Memorial Day I am always reminded of our men in uniform and how cavalier we tend to be about the potential sacrifice they face everyday. I think back to the tales my father, grandfather and stepfather shared with me about their experiences in WWII and Vietnam. I was always fascinated by their differing perspectives: my father a first-generation American born of immigrant parents from Italy joined the Navy at 17 and served aboard the sub the USS Burrfish in the Pacific theater – my grandfather was a Colonel in the Air Force stationed in Panama during WWII and my stepfather a Marine in the jungles of Vietnam. As different as their military service was, they shared the common bond of having lost men they knew and served with; as a young boy listening to the stories, I didn’t really understand the significance of that sacrifice.
In the many years since, I have often wondered if we, not only as individuals but also as a society, truly understand what Memorial Day signifies – the sacrifice we expect of our military and the collateral sacrifice their families live with. I know for myself – as a young man still in high school – I had the good fortune to read a speech by Gen. Douglas MacArthur addressed to the West Point cadets in 1962. I am still stirred by his words and their impact and even more how they bring a substance and gravity to the memories of my father, grandfather and stepfather. Imagine you can hear them echoing:
“…It is the story of the American man at arms… His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast… I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death. They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips, the hope that we would go on to victory. Always for them: Duty, Honor, Country. Always their blood, and sweat, and tears, as they saw the way and the light…”
I find it impossible to read these words and not take a moment to reflect on those who have laid down their lives for this country and the ideals we hold dear. Whether it be 200+ years ago in a war for self-determination or yesterday somewhere far from home – it is incumbent upon us to honor the sacrifice of our fallen. Take a moment to read the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, from a speech he gave in 1884 at a Memorial Day dinner, remember this wasn’t shortly after some world-wide conflict of good vs evil but in the shadow of a war among ourselves brother against brother… A war fought for the ideals we decided to build this great nation on and that we still defend today with the blood of those who take up the banner of military service.
“But as surely as this day comes round, we are in the presence of the dead…where the ghosts sit at the table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves–the dead come back and live with us.”
I believe he was speaking about more than just their memories he was reminding us that on this day of all days it is their sacrifice we honor and implores us to not forget the mighty toll of our conflicts and vast responsibility it creates.
So, my friends as you gather together for that afternoon BBQ, the morning round of golf, or whatever activity you may have planned for that “end of spring extra day off from work Monday,” let us take even just a brief moment to honor and remember those who embraced “Duty, Honor, Country” as more than just a slogan.
Memorial Day… I think a mostly misunderstood day; thank God for FB memes, Twitter wars and ugly politics to remind us the toll of conflict is the lives of our own. In the fields of Gettysburg, jungles of Vietnam, Normandy, or the sands of the Mid-East our brothers and sisters have died in uniform – a violent end to all they were and would have been – yet we casually mouth words like freedom and sacrifice, as if these could somehow capture the magnitude of their loss.
Many years ago, I wrote the above piece on Memorial Day – quoting the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes and General Douglas MacArthur; oh, it was lofty for sure with words like, courage, honor, duty, loyalty… and those men had no doubt earned the right to pen those words, but had I? I am not sure there is an adequate answer to that for what is the life of one man, a thousand men, a million men worth – does “duty, honor, country,” cover it? Is that the price of freedom, the price of furthering this idea we call democracy, the price of the perpetual struggle against “evil” and are a few penned words reverent enough?
I don’t have any real answers, it’s simply what we ask – demand of those that wear the uniform whether they volunteered, were conscripted or simply believed it was the best option in a world of limited opportunity. However, they arrived at the last moment of their existence it transcended race, ethnicity, gender, orientation and ideology – maybe that’s the real lesson – in spite of all the ways we choose to separate ourselves; those we have lost share a commonality that provides a glimpse of a more perfect Union we should all aspire to – remember to remember.