Panel 3 East of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was still dark when we gathered in the wee hours of the morning. In the pre-dawn darkness, you could see the Honor Guard positioned atop the panel only when a flash from a camera exploded. Then it lit up enough to see the uniformed young men in Stetsons proudly holding the flag and campaign ribbons of the First Cavalry.
(Ret.) Colonel Hal Moore and Joe Galloway (authors of the book describing the Ia Drang battle, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young) took their places in front of the panel as the day’s first ray of light began to creep upon the ground, encasing the entire memorial in a grayish light.
Hal and Joe respectfully and lovingly began to recite the names of each soldier who had died in the Ia Drang Valley in November of 1965. Their voices were choked with emotion. With each name, the day widened its grip of the earth, broadening its reach against the panel, coloring its way across the Memorial. The dawn crept in stealthily as each name was recited, bleeding its reddish hue down the panel like a stream of blood on a battlefield. The sun’s rays came to rest atop the panel and on the Honor Guard who had remained standing tall and straight, much like their First Cav comrades in combat.
It was Veterans’ Day 2005. We were all there to remember a specific group who had fallen while serving this nation: the casualties of the Ia Drang Valley.
It is now May 2010. Monday, May 31, is Memorial Day. Some people misthink that Memorial Day is to honor all who have died, but it is not. It is a day set aside for another specific group: all the men and women who have died while in service to our country.
But will people even bother to remember? They did once, a long time ago.
Placing flowers upon the graves on those who have fallen in the line of service began before Memorial Day was officially a holiday recognizing this loving gesture. “Decoration Day,” as it was originally nicknamed, happened in part because of a group of southern women who took it upon themselves to decorate the graves of the confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War. In truth, many similar hearts across the nation were decorating the graves of their loved ones who had fallen while in service. The day was not officially set aside as a day of remembering until General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed May 5, 1868, as a memorial day for placing flowers upon Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The idea caught on in the states. New York was the first to lead the way in 1873 when it officially recognized the day as a holiday. By 1890 all the northern states had declared an official Memorial Day holiday. The southern states joined in when the holiday was changed to include all those who had fallen in service in all wars and not just the Civil War.
In 1951, the St. Louis Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts placed flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. This practice is continued every year as a “Good Turn.”
Since the late 50’s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry pace and place small American flags at each of the gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. (There are more than 300,000 people buried at Arlington.) Their duty is not finished when their task is completed. They patrol 24×7 until Memorial Day to ensure that each flag remains upright.
The National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363) passed by Congress chose the last Monday in May as the national day of memory to ensure a three-day weekend for Federal holidays.
For twelve years on the Saturday before Memorial Day, at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’s Heights, the local Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle on each of the approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers.
In December of 2000, Congress passed the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution to encourage Americans to recall and respect the true meaning of Memorial Day. We Americans are asked to stop at 3 P.M. local time on Memorial Day for a moment of silence to honor those who sacrificed their lives for us in the line of duty and service to our country.
In 2004, Washington D.C. held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years.
What about today?
The public is losing interest in honoring this special group of people.
Each year the amount of those who care about our fallen is shrinking. The U.S.Memorial Day organization knows this for a fact: “Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day.”
This Memorial Day, as I think upon what it means to give up your life for another, I am also reminded of those who survived and are still with us. How many go back “in country” each night? How many suffer with posttraumatic stress disorder? Do they feel out of place in their skin because America had no place to file them away after they came back?
By remembering all those who have given their lives in service, we do more than merely pay our respects or decorate a grave. We provide a strong, straight thread of honor and dignity to the living, such as those who gathered on that Sunday morning in Washington DC, and connect it to the fallen, such as those listed on Panel 3 East, and declare, “By your dedication to service you connect the present to the past and weave a tapestry of immortality. From beginning to end, you have affixed a place of honor forever in our lives and we are the better for it.”
On this Memorial Day if you cannot visit a cemetery and lay a flower, or visit a church and say a prayer, take one minute of private silence at 3 P.M. to be grateful for those who were willing to accept the order to fight and die for you — a friend, a family member or a stranger.
It is the least you can do, but it is the best thing you can do.
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.
— Moina Michael
Rest in peace my brothers and sisters of wars, for you are not forgotten.
U.S. Memorial Day organization: http://www.usmemorialday.org