Memorial Day began as a way to honor the fallen from the Civil War:
…no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
The day evolved to honor the lives, service and sacrifices of those having served in all of America’s wars and conflicts, and was officially declared a national holiday in 1971.
My father-in-law served in both WWII and the Korean War, joining the Navy as a 16 year old by lying about his age with a wink and a nod to the draft board fella. He soon headed out to the Pacific, where he drove landing boats onto the beaches of Tarawa, among many incredibly tough battles.
He survived it, only to come home, go to college and then get called back to service — this time as a Marine — in Korea. In that second stint in uniform, he survived the frozen, bloody wasteland of Chosin, only to be wounded at the end and sent home with a purple heart.
My father-in-law doesn’t talk much about those years — veterans of that era rarely do. I have had any number of great uncles, grandpas, my own father, and other relatives who have served — and are currently serving — this nation in uniform. And none of them speak lightly of their service.
What they do say, however, is that they fought for this nation not for the glory of battle (because anyone who has been near a battlefield knows that the last thing it could be described as is glorious) nor for the enhanced power or status of those higher up the political chain (because those folks grasp at anything to enhance themselves anyway).
It was and always has been because they saw a cause greater than themselves. Something so important that it was worth risking their lives and limbs for their families or their future.
Only history and truth can tell us which of these battles was folly and which was truly for a greater good. But for those who fight — on all sides of any battle — the greatest struggle is the one in which we are all engaged on some level: survival.
For all of those who served and lost their lives, we remember.
For those who have served and are still with us, that survival stands as a reminder that life is precious. That we should neither take it lightly nor put anyone into harm’s way without the direst of need.
The price of rash and unwise action is far too high. Especially for those families who wait with hushed breath until they can once again embrace their loved ones safely home.
Coming home from our trip, we had a layover in DC. There was an Honor Flight of WWII veterans being brought to the nation’s capitol to see the WWII memorial before it was too late. My father-in-law is 84, and he’s one of the younger ones. These men came off the flight to a band playing Stars and Stripes Forever, most in wheelchairs and bent over with age, but with shining eyes and spirits intact.
Some had probably survived the same battles — or ones like them — that so many of my family had seen.
That my father-in-law saw, his buddies battered on the reefs or riddled with bullets as he continued to drive landing craft through the churning, bloodied water over and over again until they took that hunk of coral in the sea, only to do the same over and over again across the Pacific. Like my Great Uncle Larry, who floated on a oil barrel after his destroyer was sunk, only to watch his comrades picked off by sharks around him until he was the only living man around for miles of empty sea. (And I only know this from hiding under a card table and listening in after he and my dad had one too many whiskeys; he never talked about it otherwise.)
In my family, the military was a way up and out. And a way of giving back to a nation that had embraced our ancestors. There has always been a lot of pride in service; still is.
But so many young lives shattered. So many survivors asking through the years why they were spared unscathed or barely wounded when others were not so lucky.
What can we do?
Make better decisions. Don’t put our fellow citizens in harms way without there being an immediately necessary, just cause. And even then, keep asking ourselves if it is the right thing to do. Reach out a hand to those currently serving — they and their families are stretched so thin these days it is painful to see, and they could really use it.
What follows are two YouTubes which go to the heart of the price of this service. Watch, think and feel. Because we should never, ever lose sight of what is asked, what is paid and what is lost before asking any member of our society to sacrifice anew.
This first is a Civil War anthem that is achingly lovely and bitterly painful:
This second is Charles Durning from the Memorial Day concert in Washington, D.C. in 2007. Incredibly moving, he’s talking about DDay in Normandy from his own experiences — and all of his fellow soldiers, some of whom never made it to the beach.