A bit of history: Memorial Day began as "Decoration Day'' in the 1860s, to honor the 625,000 soldiers who died in the Civil War. Think of that amazing number: The number of Civil War dead is more than the population of Wyoming today. The number of Civil War dead is 11 times the number of American troops who died in Vietnam. According to Yale historian David Blight, the first Decoration Day event was organized by freed African-American slaves in 1865 in Charleston, S.C., where a parade of 10,000, led by 3,000 black schoolchildren, took place to honor the dead around a racetrack that had been used as a burial ground. In 2010, some leading Charleston residents dedicated a memorial for the first Memorial Day -- so re-named in 1882 -- at a reflecting pool in the city.
It is hard to reflect on the purpose of Memorial Day without feeling more than a little inadequate. It is one day of the year that is set aside to honor those who have died in the service of our country. How can any of us, enjoying our grills, pools (though not today), and many creature comforts, hope to express our thanks to those who have given everything? How can we express it to those left behind?
I was moved by this article by Tom Manion, the father of a fallen Marine named First Lieutenant Travis Manion.
Travis was just 26 years old when an enemy sniper's bullet pierced his heart after he had just helped save two wounded comrades. Even though our family knew the risks of Travis fighting on the violent streets of Fallujah, being notified of his death on a warm Sunday afternoon in Doylestown, Pa., was the worst moment of our lives.
While my son's life was relatively short, I spend every day marveling at his courage and wisdom. Before his second and final combat deployment, Travis said he wanted to go back to Iraq in order to spare a less-experienced Marine from going in his place. His words—"If not me, then who . . . "—continue to inspire me.
Mr. Manion reminds us that sacrifices continue to be made, and men like Travis continue to give their lives, after more than ten years of war.
Author, and soldier's wife, Lily Burana, comments on a photo that she finds haunting. I agree, and hope you will read about it. I remember seeing the photo when it accompanied a story about the Marines whose job it is to notify families of the death of a loved one and who accompany their remains to their place of burial.
Her closing words are worth copying here:
I believe that the civilian-military gap isn’t always born of indifference, but rather, at times, a sense of helplessness on the civilian side. What can I do? If you do nothing else, you can remember those who have given their lives for their country. Our country. Remembrance, which may seem a modest contribution in the moment, is a sacred act with long-term payoff — a singularly human gift that keeps on giving, year after war-fatigued year. I don’t need to remind you that America’s sons and daughters are still dying in combat. I don’t want to browbeat you into feeling guilty for not doing more. Instead, I want to tell you that as the wife of a veteran, it is tremendously meaningful to know that on this Memorial Day, civilians will be bearing witness and remembering in their own way — that those who are gone are not forgotten. I also want to say that as you remember them, we remember you.Thank you, to those who have fought and died. Thank you to their families. Thank you to those who have lost in other ways, and thank you to those who love them. My words cannot hope to relay the feeling of gratitude that I feel.