It seems like these days there are only two ways to celebrate Memorial Day. Either throw a BBQ, attend a parade, and set off fireworks late into the night, or frown at those who do. In fact, it’s become conventional, in a rage against the machine kind of way, to proclaim that BBQs and fireworks on Memorial Day are a selfish, if not blasphemous, way to spend a day set aside to honoring those who have died for our freedoms.
This is somewhat true, and somewhat an exaggeration. Our founding fathers—and I daresay many of our soldiers, fallen, active, and retired—would prefer a mix of the two, a day filled with honor and celebration, respect and joy.
To an extent, critics of grilling out on Memorial Day to have a point. General John Logan issued a proclamation, originally coined Decoration Day 150 years ago, as a day which “would be an occasion to honor those who died in the conflict.” There are many ways to honor the dead. Specifically: “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 during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
Is ‘Happy Memorial Day’ an Oxymoron?
Marine Corps veteran Jennie Haskamp has attended more than 75 memorial services since September 11, 2001 and wrote in The Washington Post that while some people pause and reflect upon those who died, “[N]ot enough people use it that way. Not enough people pause. Not enough people remember. She said she’s “frustrated by people all over the country who view the day as anything but a day to remember our WAR DEAD. I hate hearing “Happy Memorial Day.”
I’m sure it’s difficult for veterans like Haskamp to hear “Born in the USA” blaring from the radio of a patio while she falls asleep at night remembering the faces of those she fought alongside who lost their lives for our freedom. It probably feels like a blatant slap in the face. But many people don’t intend for their celebrations to be disrespectful.
It would be ideal and respectful to honor fallen soldiers in exactly the way General Logan and Haskamp described. But many people do not live near national cemeteries, cannot visit Arlington, or don’t know people who have lost loved ones in battle whom they could personally thank. Many people are given that day off, so they do the next best thing: They enjoy their freedom; they celebrate the day. That might include grilling steak and eating watermelon, a parade, or just dinner on the patio with family and friends.
There are many ways to honor the dead. For some people it means regularly visiting a grave site where a loved one or friend is buried. For others, though, it’s talking about that person, remembering the way he or she lived, or doing something that person would have liked.
Celebrate, Yes—And Remember
My husband’s grandfather fought in World War II. His ship, the USS Princeton, sank in the middle of Leyte Gulf. He treaded water for four and a half hours while sharks circled around him, bloodying the warm Pacific. Many of his friends did not survive. He has never been able to honor his fallen comrades at grave sites, because nearly everyone he fought alongside lived outside his home state.
Does this mean he doesn’t honor them? That he doesn’t remember? Today he will spend the day with us, conversing with hearing aids trickling from his ears and a MARINE baseball cap on his 89 year-old head—yet he honors his friends. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t remember what he went through with his friends who didn’t make it home. He remembers that war and he grieves their deaths, but he honors their sacrifice the best way he can.
His great-grandson, Army Sgt. Sean Gallatin, has nearly completed three and a half years of active duty. Gallatin told me he was “absolutely fine with people celebrating Memorial Day in the now traditional way, with BBQ, drinks, and fireworks.” He went on to say that he’s not alone. “All the current active-duty and retired guys feel the same way.” Like Haskamp and many patriotic Americans, Gallatin does believe it’s “nice to see American flags waving and recognition for fallen soldiers—and the guys down range” (military-speak for soldiers currently deployed in a combat zone). Not one or the other, but both.
Last year near Labor Day, my family and I stopped in a Great Harvest Bread Company. While waiting in line for their delicious and wonderfully calorie-laden mixed berry cobbler bread, the owner stepped into the middle of the store, interrupted customers, and announced he was going to honor the life of a soldier who had died by reading us an account of who he was and where and how he died.
I admit, when he first started reading it was a bit uncomfortable, but by the end, every customer was staring at him, interested in the soldier’s story. We all honored his life by soaking in his account and his recent death in Iraq. We left the store talking about his bravery, how much we appreciated his sacrifice, and a bit more sobered and thankful than when we had walked in.
Honoring our soldiers is the right thing to do. Enjoying our freedoms they died for is also a good thing to do. The two needn’t be mutually exclusive. Before you fire up the grill, honor those who make this day possible. Then be thankful for the freedoms they died to preserve in the best way you can—at a grave site, a pool, or a friend’s BBQ. There are many ways to honor the dead. But one of the best ways to do so is to live well.
Soldiers Who Died During Operation Enduring Freedom
Army Spc. Wyatt J. Martin: Died December 12, 2014 in Afghanistan.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Ramon S. Morris: Died December 12, 2014 in Afghanistan.
Army Staff Sgt. Matthew R. Ammerman: Died December 3, 2014 in Afghanistan.
Army Spc. Joseph W. Riley: Died November 24, 2014 in Afghanistan.
Army Sgt. Maj. Wardell Turner: Died November 24, 2014 in Afghanistan.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael A. Cathcart: Died November 14, 2014 in Afghanistan.
Navy Cmdr. Christopher E. Kalafut: Died October 24, 2014 in Qatar.
Army Marj. Jonathan D. Walker: Died October 1, 2014 in Qatar.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Andrew T. Weathers: Died September 30, 2014 in Afghanistan.
Navy Lt. j.g. Stephen Byus: Died September 16, 2014 in Afghanistan.
Army Maj. Michael J. Donahue: Died September 16, 2014 in Afghanistan.
Soldiers Who Died During World War II (From Virginia)
Aviation Radioman 2c USNR Albert Lowell Abernathy.
Lt. USNR John White Acree.
Pvt. USMCR. Edward G. Adams.
Cpl USMCR. James Ligon Adams.
Motor Machinist’s Mate 2 c USNR. Joseph Preston Adams Jr.
Seaman 1 c USN. Marvin Addison.
Pfc. USMCR. Ray E. Adkins.
Seaman 1c USNR. Elwood Leslie Akers.
Electrician’s Mate 2c. USN Wallace Marshall Albertson.
Cpl USMC. Hartley W. Alen.
Ship’s Cook 2 c USNR. Glenn Jackson Alderman.