2009-05-21 / Opinions

Some forget Memorial Day's true meaning but veterans remember their fallen friends

By KIP BURKE news editor

This probably comes as a shock to many residents of America, but Memorial Day is not designed to mark the day the pools open, nor does it exist to give us all a three-day weekend.

The day is set aside to honor those Americans who died in service to their country, to remember those who paid the ultimate price for our freedoms. Some of us can never forget.

It is not a celebration. At least it wasn't back when people understood the day and the full measure of its meaning.

In days gone by, Memorial Day was a solemn day of mourning, a sacred day of remembrance. Most businesses closed for the day. Towns, including Washington, honored the fallen with parades that ended at the local cemetery. There, after speeches were given and prayers offered up, families spent the day cleaning and decorating with flowers and flags the graves of those who had fallen in service to their country.

In 1971, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May and made a federal holiday, creating a convenient three-day weekend at the end of the school year. Pretty soon, times changed and cooking out at the lake won out over cleaning Grandpa's grave.

To many, but not to all.

Service veterans, especially combat veterans, are one group of Americans who have always marked Memorial Day. They've done it with painful remembrance in their hearts, because it's their friends, their shipmates, their closest buds who are being remembered, and whom they can never forget.

Combat veterans can never forget that they themselves came back, but better men didn't. They're ashamed that they're called heroes just for having served, when the real heroes are the guys who died around them. For many combat veterans, every day is Memorial Day, as is every night.

But the observance of Memorial Day is growing. It may be, sadly, because of the fresh pain of recent Iraq and Afghanistan war deaths. Sad, too, is the shrinking number of veterans of World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam who have carried the flame of Memorial Day, planning and putting on annual observances.

Veterans have gotten together for observances planned for many cities and towns in Georgia. Vets in Roswell host "Roswell Remembers," the largest Memorial Day observance in the state with some 7,500 people in attendance last year, and more expected this year. That's promising.

The National Park Service, to its credit, observes Memorial Day weekend with parades, memorial speeches, reenactments and living history demonstrations, and the decoration of graves with flowers and flags at national park sites throughout the country. Since 1997, a tradition has been re-established to play "Taps" at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day at national parks, cemeteries, and memorial sites.

I'll never forget standing at attention to "Taps" at the Viet Nam Memorial when I was stationed at the Pentagon. The weight, that gravitas, has never left me.

Folks, as much as you may need a three-day vacation, I don't believe I'm asking too much to request that you take a moment to remember a fallen Marine, soldier, or sailor on Monday. Please leave room in your busy hearts for the sad notes of "Taps" to echo, and just for a moment share the pain felt by a mother, a father, a child, as they lost their loved one in battle.

That's what we memorialize on Memorial Day.

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