Remember What Memorial Day is About

30 May 2017

[50-star American flag with battle honors]

Memorial Day – A "Gold Star" Day

Yesterday was the official observance of Memorial Day for 2017. Today, 30 May, is the traditional observance of the day, so I believe it's still fitting to write this. There are two basic things I want to say here, so please bear with me.

First, Memorial Day is not like the other ten holidays on the Federal calendar in that it's not meant to be festive or happy. Memorial Day is a day of remembrance; a time set aside for all Americans to think about and remember the sacrifices that have been made by the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who have died in the line of duty throughout the history of this country in order to protect us and all that this country stands for. There is no such thing as a "happy" Memorial Day, and it is quite frankly disrespectful for people to wish others a "Happy Memorial Day." What is there to be happy about when remembering the sacrifices of the military servicemembers and their families? The absurdity of this conundrum was driven home to me yesterday when I flipped past the History Channel - which was showing a series of episodes about the sacrifices of American families as they moved West - and my eye was caught by the "Happy Memorial Day!" graphic in the bottom right corner of the screen. It was also apparent to me when driving to work and listening to the radio, with people calling in to wish the host of the radio show a "Happy Memorial Day." Most of these same individuals, obviously well-meaning but entirely missing the point of the holiday, went on to issue statements thanking servicemembers and their families for their service to the country. While the sentiment is well-meant and likely heartfelt, it is entirely misplaced on this hallowed day. Veterans' Day in November is the holiday set aside to specifically recognize military veterans and those currently serving. Or, quite honestly, any other day of the year will work just fine as well.

Memorial Day — just stop and think about the words that make up the name of the holiday. Actually, just focus on the first word. "Memorial." This is the one day of the year meant to memorialize those who have died in the service of their country. It's to make sure that we, as Americans, never forget the lives of the more than one million three hundred fifty-four thousand men and women who died from combat or disease while serving the United States of America. We owe those men and women and their families a debt that can never be fully repaid. They were willing to sacrifice themselves, taking themselves away from their families, in order to protect and defend us all. From 1775 through 2017 and into the future, these brave people deserve our undying thanks, and their families deserve our unending gratitude.

In the subtitle of this essay, I called Memorial Day a "Gold Star" Day. Some of you reading this will know already what I meant by that, but for those of you who don't, I want you to walk away with a new piece of knowledge and a renewed understanding of what this holiday means. During the First and Second World Wars, American families were encouraged to hang flags in the windows of their homes to show how many family members were serving in the military to support the war effort. The flags were white rectangles with a thick red border and a number of blue stars on the white equal to the number of family members currently serving. If a serving family member were killed in action or died while in service, the star was changed from blue to gold to represent the sacrifice of that person's life in the cause of defending the country. Families proudly displayed the flags in their windows, and the gold stars became a solemn reminder of the cost of freedom and the price to be paid in blood to preserve that freedom. It is a practice that has, unfortunately, fallen by the wayside in recent years, but one that I think helps reinforce the meaning behind the holiday of Memorial Day.

The second point that I wanted to make about this holiday is that, in my opinion, we should not forgot those who have died in war without a uniform. As a country, as a society, we actually do an admirable job of remembering and recounting our uniformed servicemembers and their sacrifices. We have the names and have recorded the numbers of soldiers, sailors, airman, and Marines that have been lost in war. We grant them medals. We name schools and roads and scholarships and buildings after them. We present medals to their families and vow that their widows/widowers and children will not be forgotten and will be cared for by the community. But what about the civilians who support them and make the ultimate sacrifice? The contractors, the support personnel, the intelligence professionals, the administrative workers who follow the armed forces into the combat zones in order to keep them supplied, informed, supported, and fighting. What happens when those individuals are killed? Are their names recorded? Are their families given a flag and medals to remember their loved one? Does anyone outside their family even know or care?

In the 242 years since the United States began its fight for independence, there has been no record and no effort to record the price paid by the civilians who support the military. Individual government agencies record the sacrifices of their own and one would assume that the various Defense contract companies do as well, but there is no comprehensive count. There is no national effort to remember these people and their sacrifices. Is their sacrifice any less? Do their lives and deaths count for less than those wearing a uniform? This Memorial Day and for the future, I would call upon each of you to remember not only the uniformed men and women and their sacrifices, but those civilians whose sacrifices have gone unnoticed and unremarked. Remember those individuals, their families, and their friends. Keep them also in your thoughts and prayers on this solemn holiday.

All who have served – in uniform and without – and have paid the ultimate price have died to uphold the ideal espoused by our country's first civilian intelligence professional to die supporting the military, Nathan Hale, who said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." Let us not forget any of them or their sacrifices.