Over the three-day weekend, several friends bid me a “Happy Memorial Day.” This was a benign and routine greeting at this time of year. I took no offense, but it did make me think. Memorial Day is often called “the official start of summer.” It is filled with cookouts; picnics, ball games, and festive activities of one kind or another. It has its share of parades and even a few speeches on patriotic themes. For a huge portion of the population, Memorial Day is a day off and a day of celebration and fun.
It was not always so. General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide. It was observed for the first time that year on Saturday May 30; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. “The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day”, which was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress’ change of date within a few years.” Despite all the fits and starts, the true purpose of this observance has never varied. It is to honor men and women who have died in the military service of their country. It is a day for remembrance, for gratitude and for reflection.
We should ponder these words by America’s current Commander-in Chief:
“These 600 acres are home to Americans from every part of the country who gave their lives in every corner of the globe. When a revolution needed to be waged and a Union needed to be saved, they left their homes and took up arms for the sake of an idea. From the jungles of Vietnam to the mountains of Afghanistan, they stepped forward and answered the call. They fought for a home they might never return to; they fought for buddies they would never forget. And while their stories may be separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles, they rest here, together, side-by-side, row-by-row, because each of them loved this country, and everything it stands for, more than life itself.”
Given this reality, I find it hard to fully embrace the “Happy Memorial Day” spirit. It seems happy is somewhat off target for the occasion. Grateful would seem a better emotion. The people interred at Arlington and at the other military cemeteries in the U S, such as Gettysburg, are not all who have fallen in service to their country. More than 250,000 are buried or memorialized by name across ten countries. Many others are buried as Canadian or British because they joined the Royal Air Force or the Canadian Royal Air Force in World War II. No matter where they are buried or memorialized, all these fallen Americans are the intended honorees of the holiday we now call Memorial Day.
For those of us who served and survived, Memorial Day summons up many feelings. In my case, it is a time of remembrance and renewal. I remember those who served with me, but did not return with me. On that basis, I renew my dedication to the overarching mission that guided my service and theirs. Despite the specifics from day to day and hour to hour, all of us in the military were sworn to do one profound task:
“I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” Military regulations make “So help me God” optional in accord with the enlistee’s religious preference.
The first section of the oath is virtually identical to that taken by Senators, Congress Members and other federal officials. This sworn oath is one form of the idea for which all members of the U S military served and some of them died. Certainly, the context of this service included specific times, places, objectives and hazards. None of these specifics, however, explained fully why people went into harm’s way or why some of those people gave the last full measure of devotion. Every battle was not ultimately waged for the territory upon which it took place. Our service members fought and many died so that this nation would live on and government of, by and for the people should not perish. It is this overarching mission that connects living veterans with the fallen and with those holding or seeking political authority. The support and defense of the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; and demonstration of true faith and allegiance to the same is a mission that never ends while breath yet draws. Charlie Mike [Continue Mission] is immortal; though everyone of us is not.
Therefore, as I reflect on another Memorial Day, I say softly, “Charlie Mike.” I hearken to Lincoln’s dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery: “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Those we memorialize have done all they can; Continuing the Mission is up to “us the living.”