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Remembering Those Who Have Died

By Wesley Smith1590170281327

America, sleep soundly tonight.  The Soldiers of Bravo Company will tuck you in with the power of freedom and all that it offers.  They will ask nothing in return of you and it is likely they never will.  When you see these few, these happy few, tell them you love them for their sacrifice and that you slept well tonight.
---CPT Kyle Comfort
Killed in Action May 8, 2010
Operation Enduring Freedom
3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment

During my military service at the Pentagon in Casualty Affairs Operations, I kept the above quote on my desk; it was written by a young company commander in the U.S. Army.  Captain Comfort’s eloquent and touching words are emblematic of the bravery and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, as well as a potent reminder of the meaning of the upcoming holiday weekend.

Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States to remember all those who have died in military service to the nation.  The holiday originated in the South immediately after the end of the American Civil War. Southern women in Georgia and Mississippi, grieving for the loss of a huge portion of the male population, organized “Decoration Days” on which flowers were placed on the graves of dead soldiers.  The custom quickly became popular and widely publicized.  In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, established a day for the nation to decorate the graves of the Union war dead with flowers as well.

Even though the North and South initially celebrated this event on different dates, these acts of reverence for war dead became a symbol of what was slowly reuniting the broken nation:  citizens of the North and South were united in their sorrow and in remembering those who died.  Over 600,000 soldiers died in that war.

By the early part of the 20th century, the competing commemorations merged and became a day to honor not just those who died in the Civil War, but for all military dead, with May 30 as the accepted date. It was chosen because it was not the anniversary date of any particular battle and because flowers would be in bloom all across the nation.  On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May.

There are numerous Memorial Day traditions observed around the country and overseas where U.S. troops are stationed.  One of my most meaningful memories is participating, while assigned to the Pentagon, in a tradition called “Flags In.”  Service members from all over the Military District of Washington gather at Arlington National Cemetery.  Taking bundles of flags, they walk the cemetery and make sure every grave is decorated with the American Flag.  Because of my duty in Casualty Affairs, Flags In was a personal reminder of the 1,116 fallen members of the military for whom I had officiated in ceremonies at Dover Air Force Base and of the many family members, whom I met personally.

Another tradition involves the raising of the flag on Memorial Day: the American flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, the flag is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice.

Memorial Day is usually filled with family traditions, parades, and other commemorations in local communities.  Celebrations this year are tempered by our ongoing responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is the unofficial beginning of the summer vacation season, which runs through Labor Day, a reminder of the many freedoms, celebrations, and traditions in our nation’s communities—made possible only because of the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform.

On this Memorial Day 2020, remember that military service is still inherently dangerous, no matter what one’s job in the armed forces.  Training, deployments and the ongoing fight against terrorism are all replete with potential risks.  Since 2001, 2,353 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan, 4,431 in Iraq, and 233 in other operations. We also continue to bury hundreds of veterans from World War II, that greatest generation, as well as thousands more who have served our nation sacrificially in places like Korea, Vietnam, and the First Gulf War. Take time this weekend to remember their sacrifice and to pray for their families and loved ones.

We honor those who died by remembering.  It is part of our sacred duty as Americans to simply and gratefully remember.  Memorial Day is also a quiet and insistent reminder to each of us that Freedom is Not Free.

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