(Providence, Rhode Island) – It’s Memorial Day weekend, and while it will be marked with barbecues, parades and auto racing, let’s not forget the real meaning of the holiday – to honor and remember our nation’s war dead. Memorial Day has had a fascinating history, so let’s “brunch” on that this week:
“Changing Times” – Believe it or not, the modern Memorial Day of always celebrating on the last Monday in May, has only been around since 1971. Congress and the President moved four national holidays to Monday, to provide for a 3-day weekend. Prior to that, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30th, no matter the day of the week.
“Northern Traditions” – Decoration Day – as it was first known – has origins in the North and the South. Both traditions stemmed from all the deaths on both sides in the Civil War (over 600,000 in total). In the North, Waterloo, New York is cited as the birthplace of Memorial Day. In the summer of 1865, Union General John B. Murray – at the suggestion of a local group - helped create the day to honor those killed in the war.
“Southern Crosses” – In May of 1865, a group of people – many of them African-American – decided to decorate the graves of hundreds of soldiers killed on both sides of the Civil War in Charleston, South Carolina. Historians can’t really pinpoint who exactly created the first Memorial Day, since it was celebrated in different ways, at different places, in approximately the same time frame. But clearly, good people with good intentions – on both sides of the Civil War – felt a virtually simultaneous need to remember and honor their war dead. The fact that a still bitterly divided nation – both geographically and racially – found this same sense of duty is just utterly profound and speaks volumes about all that is right about our country.
“Tomb of the Unknowns” – The most hallowed ground in the nation is the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It was originally conceived to house the remains of an unidentified World War I soldier. Later, unidentified remains of a World War II, a Korean War, and a Vietnam War service member were also interred. In 1998, the Vietnam solider was positively identified. It is now likely – through modern DNA testing – that we will never have to bury an “unknown” solider ever again.
“Names Have Meanings” – I always found the “Tomb of the Unknowns” haunting. On the numerous times I visited when I worked in Washington, DC, I always thought of a family – somewhere across America – still grief stricken because their loved one was never identified and brought home. What a hole in their heart that must be. Yet, I think it was a stroke of genius to honor the unknown soldier. That meant our nation never forgot. I got to cover the identification of the last Vietnam War unknown service member in 1998. He was Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, killed in action at the age of 24 (photo above). His plane was shot down in 1972. Twenty-six years later, his remains were exhumed from the Tomb, identified, and sent for burial at a family gravesite in Missouri. This must have brought some sense of closure and great comfort to his loved ones. Let’s never forget his name or his service.
“Holiday Confusion” – There has always been confusion over the exact meaning of two similar holidays. Veterans Day now honors all of those who served in our nation’s military, especially during times of war and conflict. Memorial Day is to honor all those Veterans who died in service to the country.
“It’s Never to Late to Say, Thank You!” – On Saturday I was walking into a local pharmacy and a very feeble and frail older gentleman came walking out, clearly struggling. He was wearing a cap that said, “World War II Veteran.” He was parked next to me. When I offered to help him put his things in the car, he appeared to ignore me. Then when I simply said, “Thank you for serving our country,” he looked at me with a puzzled expression. Then he pointed to his ears and mouth, and shook his head side to side, signaling no. I gathered it was his way of telling me he was deaf and could no longer speak. He had to be 90 or older. I pointed to his cap, and again said “Thank you!” His face lit up with a big smile and I could tell he had read my lips! God bless him!
“How You Can Help!” – The best way to honor those who’ve died in service to our country is to help those veterans who are still living and are in need. On the West Coast I am involved in promoting the “Sentinels of Freedom” www.SentinelsOfFreedom.org and on the East Coast I support “Operation Stand Down Rhode Island” www.OSDRI.org.
While this is a weekend where we honor those who died for our country, when you see a veteran over the holiday, remember to thank them. If you have any Memorial Day remembrances, just post them at the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.
© 2014, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.
Photo Courtesy: U.S. Department of Defense