A thousand words is worth more than a picture on Memorial Day
For many, Memorial Day is the first three-day weekend of summer, and perhaps, nothing more.
Barbecues, camping and honey-do lists are the mainstays of a holiday created to honor the sacrifice of those who fell in service to this great country.
After joining the war effort in 2006 and serving in the U.S. Army, including a combat tour in Iraq, I found myself questioning the sincerity of flipping burgers in the backyard as an homage to the brothers-in-arms who didn’t accompany me home.
Before the war, I hadn’t given much thought to the holiday. As a kid, it signified summer break was finally around the corner. As a civilian adult, it meant a reprieve from the 9-to-5 grind, and if not, that coveted overtime pay.
I grew up surrounded by veterans: My older brother served during Operation Desert Storm, my father served during Vietnam, my grandfathers all fought in World War II, my cousins, uncles and even my nephews all proudly served; and yet, we were never raised to understand the importance of Memorial Day.
We drove out and put flowers on graves, sure. But no one ever explained to us the importance of it. The act was merely an odd chance to visit the graveyard, which was off limits every other day of the year.
I don’t remember learning the holiday’s importance in school, either. I’ve always had a soft spot for military history, so I remember reading about the United States’ various conflicts. And I have enough faith in our education system to be sure at least one, if not several, teachers told my class about the holiday’s origins.
But showing people a picture of ice and telling them its cold does little to teach them the significance of a blizzard or the refreshment of a chilled drink on a hot day.
So it was that my first post-war Memorial Day was a confusing experience to say the least.
One of my biggest realizations over the years is many people don’t know the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Put simply, during Memorial Day, we honor the dead.
On Veterans Day, we honor the living.
The real question is how do we do either?
And in truth, if I hadn’t survived, I’d much rather people gathered each year for a feast than cried over my flower-adorned grave. But both are better than forgetting I ever existed or that I sacrificed everything in the name of duty to my country.
For each and every veteran, honoring their memory means something different, but the battle-brothers I keep in contact with all agree it is the memory of our lost that is most important.
Researching the veterans in your own families is an easy way anyone can contribute meaningfully to the country’s collective memory of those who fell in battle.
Say their names aloud.
Tell your friend, neighbor, son or daughter that you are proud of their service, regardless of your feelings toward war.
If no family member’s military history is available, visit your local war memorials.
Three blocks from my house, a concrete infantryman forever salutes the sunrise. He is the cornerstone of a school yard and a grim reminder of the price paid to keep future generations safe. At his base is a list of names: 1,278 servicemen who answered the call to fight the foreign oppressor in the first World War. Of all the names, only seven are marked with stars, indicating those lost in battle.
A similar monument can be found in most American cities, towns and villages, memorializing those who served and died in that noble pursuit.
Pick a name and learn what you can about the person.
Say their name aloud, and tell someone their story.
Before social media posts, before newspaper column inches, before monuments, our ancestors honored their history orally.
I think continuing this tradition, in conjunction with pre-established Memorial Day festivities, is the best way to ensure our country remembers the terrible price paid by the few to ensure freedom for the many.
Ike Fredregill is an Operation Iraqi Freedom combat veteran, author and journalist, whose works have been published nationwide and featured in Stars and Stripes, the Air Force Times and the Miami Herald.
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