Twenty years ago, when I was serving as a state officer for the Illinois FFA, I was asked to bring remarks during a local Memorial Day service. I found my notes while cleaning out a filing cabinet and am sharing a version of them today.
Memorial Day originated after the Civil War. In 1868, General John Alexander Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers, if they so chose, declared May 30, Decoration Day. A day to honor the lives of the men and women who fought and died in the Civil War.
The Civil War felled 620,000 Americans. It illustrated to a growing nation, the pain and ugliness of freedom. The war showed us freedom unchecked, without understanding, without tolerance, without civility and respect of differences. The Civil War showed this nation that it may be torn apart because of the power of freedom, but it is for the same reason its wounds will always heal. “Those who expect to reap the blessings of liberty must undergo the fatigues of supporting it,” wrote Thomas Paine. And so we have. Thus Memorial Day.
After World War I, Decoration Day or Memorial Day, became a federal holiday. A day to honor all men and women who fought and died in all military conflicts and wars. There are many . . . the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and the many “peace-keeping” missions our army manages every day.
Today, we’ll listen to eloquent words, orators attempts to vocalize the power of being an American. We’ll hear ‘Taps’ echo through a cemetery. We’ll watch the red, white and blue snap to attention and I hope, we do truly remember those who have reaped the blessings of liberty for us. The individuals, not just the collective body of service men and women. Husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, daughters, sons. A friend or an acquaintance. A pen pal. An American soldier.
While preparing this speech, I asked my granny about my grandpa’s time in the Marines. He’d never spoke of it before. She said, “Don’t speak of my grandfather’s time in service in grandiose terms. He did his duty. He fulfilled his requirements as a staff sergeant during World War II.”
He never asked for a thank you, never voiced his opinion. He served, returned home, built a life and a family and left a legacy, as do some many reluctant heroes.
On this day we focus on these individuals and their lives as service men and women. We remember their battles, their ranks, their duties, their uniforms. We remember the day they passed, the way they passed, and their contributions to this country. Contributions no amount of prayer, grateful thanksgiving or memorial service could every repay.
But I challenge us to reflect upon their lives . . . not just as military men and women, but as American citizens. Remember their birth, their first communion, anniversaries, birthdays, Sunday service, a favorite hymn, Christmas, family BBQs, a tattered book or creased newspaper. Remember the first kiss, strolls in the spring twilight. Remember their eyes, the color, the light, the steadfast glow of commitment to service. Remember their hearts, their ability to love and their loyalty to the ideal of freedom, loyalty that has secured the way we live and will live for generations.
On this day, when we honor their lives in its entirety, we also pay tribute to the reasons they are gone . . . the fight for freedom, patriotism, equality and loyalty to the country they so graciously served.
Their service is forever documented in books, in movies and the yellowed pages of personal diaries so that we may never forget.
As Moina Michaels, the founder of the red poppy movement wrote in 1915:
“We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.”
And it won’t. Both of my grandfathers served our country. While I may not know intimately their struggle, the details of combat or their personal scars; while I may not know the period of their lives as military men. . .I knew the men. I knew their hearts as only a granddaughter can, I knew their values, I knew the morality that guided their lives. So on this day, I remember the men, including the soldiers.
In this way, we bring home international conflicts. In remembering we put faces to tactical battles and strategic maneuvers. In remembering we unite as a community, one as large as the United States of America and as small as the smallest town. In celebrating the lives of those who have selflessly served, we bring hope to the families who have a loved one currently in the military. Our communal support offers validation of service and commitment to country. In a time when freedom is again unchecked, when Americans are exercising their right to speak against the very institution that preserves that right, we gather to remember.
“Those who expect to reap the blessings of liberty must undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”
And so we do. Thus Memorial Day.