The significance of Memorial Day faded during the relative peace that blessed America from the mid-1970s to the turn of the century. Since then, however, we can’t escape the memory of Americans who gave, in Lincoln’s phrase, “the last full measure of devotion” in the seemingly endless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, most recently, Syria. American special forces have also fought and died in the African country of Niger.
As we recall those who have fallen in more recent wars, our thoughts turn again to those lost in World War II, Vietnam, Korea and the first Gulf War. Now, every year, at the crossroads of spring and summer, Americans continue the essential tradition of refusing to forget.
The origin of our own Memorial Day is murky, with different places claiming to be the first to officially memorialize those who died in battle. One place to start is Arlington National Cemetery, where, 151 years ago this month, a military order came down to place flowers on both Union and Confederate graves. What was originally called “Decoration Day” was created, and families would go to cemeteries to clean the graves of their loved ones and plant flowers.
Our nation, from the beginning, has relied on the foundation of words to tell us who we are, what we stand for and when we must remember. On Memorial Day 2009, President Barack Obama eloquently eulogized those who died wearing American uniforms: “If the fallen could speak to us, what would they say? Would they console us? Perhaps they might say that while they could not know they’d be called upon to storm a beach through a hail of gunfire, they were willing to give up everything for the defense of our freedom; that while they could not know they’d be called upon to jump into the mountains of Afghanistan and seek an elusive enemy, they were willing to sacrifice all for their country; that while they couldn’t possibly know they would be called to leave this world for another, they were willing to take that chance to save the lives of their brothers and sisters in arms.”
A few years ago, a reporter from our Shelter Island Reporter visited Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, where those who have served in the armed forces are buried. He came upon cemetery caretaker Roberto Gonzalez, a Vietnam veteran, working alone in the aisles of white marble, washing and polishing headstones. Asked where he would be on Memorial Day, Mr. Gonzalez said, “Here. People say, ‘Memorial Day, oh, a day off, great beach day, shopping.’ But you know, most people don’t know why they got this day.”
He pointed to the grass at his feet. “This right here is why they got it.”
We’re lucky that Shelter Island, Riverhead and Southold haven’t forgotten what the day signifies. Remember all who served, especially those who died in uniform. And remember their families, who carry on bravely without them.