Memorial Day is designed for us to always remember, and never forget. Those words may sound synonymous but they really aren’t.
To “always remember” implies that something from the back of the mind needs to be brought forward. To “never forget” indicates an intentionality, a memorialization.
On Memorial Day we bring honorable sacrifices to the front of our minds, intentionally determining as a people that we will not let go of the fact that we are made free by those sacrifices. Honor can be coupled with memorial. It is a reasonable and necessary combination of things given the sacrifices this nation was built upon.
If you’ve never been to Arlington Cemetery you should make it a point to do so. I attended the final resting of a soldier at Arlington and will not soon forget it.
The flag-draped casket was moved to the gravesite by a horse drawn caisson. The fields of perfectly spaced white headstones in manicured grounds were interspersed with occasional tombs and trees. The family was gathered. A firing party delivered a rifle volley. A bugler played taps in the near distance. The casket team folded the flag with precision, and on behalf of a grateful nation, the folded flag was presented to the next of kin.
It seemed like a holy moment, as if speaking above a whisper would have been disrespectful.
Equally weighty is the ceremony held by troops at the field of battle when they lose one of their own. I will never forget a friendly conversation with Erik McRae, a young cavalry first lieutenant. We sat there shooting the breeze on our FOB in central Baghdad one day in early June. He was a good kid who had married his young wife just a couple of weeks before deployment. A 25-year-old, all-American, boy-next-door kind of guy. The next day he was gone.
This June 4th will mark 19 years to the day that McRae, and Specialists Justin Eyerley and Justin Linden were killed in a coordinated attack in central Baghdad by a combination of IED strikes and small arms fire.
The ceremony we held was marked by their rifles with bayonets fixed and pointed down, their dog tags hanging from the pistol grips, their empty boots positioned in front, with their helmets, or in McRae’s case his Cavalry Stetson, sitting on top.
We honored who they were. We honored what they did, and why they did it.
Arlington, like other cemeteries throughout America, is where the accounts are kept. They are where we keep the ledger of what it takes to be a free nation.
Freedom is not something to be taken lightly. Freedom is far too often just a seemingly nebulous and esoteric thing. You can almost touch it, but not quite. But the day that you don’t have it you are suddenly keenly aware of it.
Freedom is too easily taken for granted, too easily forgotten, but never easily gained. Freedom is the most expensive commodity known to man. More costly than any precious metal, or earthly possession. Freedom is on par with air, water, and food as one of the essentials of life. It paid for by the blood, sweat, and labor of men and women. It is constantly refreshed and kept viable by each successive generation.
What we now call Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day. Officially sanctioned in May 1868 to honor the war dead from the Civil War. General John Logan proclaimed in his General Order No. 11 that, “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.”
On that first “Decoration Day” participants decorated the graves at Arlington Cemetery. Then-congressman—and future president—James Garfield gave a speech in which he said, “I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here, beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.”
With each war the cost of freedom was refinanced again and again as more and more graves became a part of the solemn celebration.
In 1971 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and the last Monday of May officially became Memorial Day. Ronald Reagan delivered a speech at Arlington on Memorial Day in 1982 in which he said, “The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we—in a less final, less heroic way—be willing to give of ourselves."
This Memorial Day it is important that we pause in the midst of cooking hot dogs on the grill, hanging out at the lake, and enjoying a day away from our usual routines, and take stock of the reason the day exists and those it was designed to honor.
Tell your kids and grandkids what it means to have actual freedom here in the greatest nation on the earth. Remind yourself that freedom is not free, and that men and women have gone before us to ensure that freedom remains dynamic, not static. Speak their names out loud. Do them the honor of being intentional.
Always remember, and never forget.