Photo credit: By English: U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Happy Memorial Day weekend, Civilian Friends! It’s the unofficial start of summer, the pools are open, and if you haven’t done so already, time to clean up that nasty grill. As we enter in to the long weekend, here’s a short public service announcement from a local veteran.
Please don’t thank me for my service this weekend.
I mean it.
I am typically appreciative of such gestures, but this weekend is not the appropriate time. Memorial Day (and more recently, the weekend leading up to the day) is a time for us to remember not the living, but the dead. Specifically, those who gave their lives in military service to our nation. And when you thank us, the living, on a day intended to honor our fallen dead it is, quite frankly, a little awkward for us. We politely request that you save it up for Veterans Day.
I understand this request may come off as a little rude, or standoffish. I apologize. We recognize that you want to honor those of us who have served. Thank you. Seriously, thank you. Some of our brothers and sisters were not welcomed when they came home, or were despised for their service, and it’s nice that you’re thinking of us.
But Memorial Day is not intended to honor all veterans, even those who served in wartime. It is, however, set aside as a specific day to honor those who died. It may be helpful at this point to review the original order, issued on May 5th, 1868, from the Headquarters, Grand Army of the Republic, Washington DC. If there’s one thing we’re good at, us veterans, it’s reading and following orders.
“The 30th day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country…”
You see where I’m going with this, I hope. The original purpose of the holiday was for living veterans to honor their fallen comrades. For us, by us, if you will. However, we’re willing to share this one with you, because we strongly believe that these are most deserving of honor and recognition. General John Logan, who issued the original order, certainly thought so:
All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains in us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the nation’s gratitude—the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
This solemn duty belongs to us, and is ours to carry. I expect that this attitude will frustrate more than one or two of you. You likely feel a strong need to do something, and since you cannot express your deep feelings of gratitude directly to the dead, your desire is to turn to a living veteran and thank them instead. We understand this, but still ask you to refrain. That dissonance you’re feeling is exactly the point. It is the empty place at the table. The missed graduation. Another man walking the veteran’s daughter down the aisle. We, the living, are not qualified to fill that space for you. It is empty for a reason. Pause there, for a moment, and consider what it means.
Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that we abandon the day to barbecues and mattress sales. Lest we leave you with the impression that there’s no demonstrative way in which you, our Civilian Friend, can honor the dead, we offer this helpful list of suggestions for this Memorial Day.
- Fly the flag from your home this weekend (please do your best to adhere to policy and regulation)
- Attend your town’s Memorial Day Parade, if your town has one.
- Visit a Veterans Cemetery in your area. Read the names. Find a quiet spot and stand there for a while. Think about it.
- Attend a memorial service. Your local VFW may be holding one.
- Show your kids how to fold the American flag.
- Heed U.S. Code 36, Title 116, Subtitle I, Part A, Chapter 1-116 and pray for permanent peace.
- Read Theodore O’Hara’s poem Bivouac of the Dead. Out loud, please.
- If that one doesn’t suit you, try Longfellow’s Decoration Day, or Joyce Kilmer’s Memorial Day, or even Michael Anania’s Memorial Day, if you prefer something more recent.
- Take your kids to a military museum or battlefield. Teach them about the sacrifices made by those who gave their lives, and teach them to respect the men and women who serve today.
- Pause and observe the National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00PM on Monday.
I have one more request. When you pause to remember those who gave their lives in service to our country, please also keep in mind our brothers and sisters who came home but were not completely whole, and took their own lives after they returned. They were important to us, and we think of them often. Their deaths represent for us the full, wretched brutality of war that followed them back from the battlefield and would not release them. We’d ask that on Memorial Day you not look away from the reality of their deaths. Thanks.
When you take the time to honor our fallen brothers and sisters in their deaths, you honor the rest of us, too. We deeply appreciate your focus on their sacrifice this weekend. And you can thank us again for our service on Tuesday.