Memorial Day – A Day to Give Thanks

  • Published
  • By Col Brad Bridges
  • 10th Airlift Squadron
Memorial Day is a day for every American to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice made by so many to protect the freedom we enjoy every day. Unfortunately, for all too many, Memorial Day simply signifies the beginning of summer--a long weekend for visiting the beach, barbecuing, and enjoying time with family and friends. This couldn't be further from the truth.

A brief history lesson helps bring the day into focus. Memorial Day traces its roots back to the American Civil War. On the heels of this brutal and bloody war, communities across the country honored their dead by decorating their graves with flowers and flags. Originally called Decoration Day, it was first formally observed on May 5th 1866 in Waterloo, New York. On this day, Waterloo community businesses closed so that its residents could decorate soldiers' graves. Two years later marked the first national observance of Decoration Day, when General John A. Logan declared in General Order No. 11, "The 30th 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 churchyard in the land."

By the end of the century, Decoration Day had been widely renamed Memorial Day. Following World War I, the holiday expanded to honor not only Civil War dead, but all American war dead, stretching back to the American Revolution. And in 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday in May, creating the three-day weekend now so familiar to all Americans.

The history of the day, however, does little to convey the magnitude of the sacrifices made by an endless line of heroes from Concord to Gettysburg to Normandy to Baghdad. Since our nation's birth, over 600,000 men and women in uniform have laid down their lives in defense of freedom--loss on a scale so grand it escapes comprehension. But in honoring our fallen heroes, we must always uphold our duty to remember.

Remember each individual. Each one unique; with hopes, dreams and a lifetime of aspirations ahead. Each one bravely accepting the nation's call to arms. Each one human, facing fear and doubt, but nevertheless summoning the strength and courage to fight for what is just. Each one risking everything for the nation and ideals they held dear.

Remember their families. Each fallen defender of freedom leaving behind family members faced with a void no ceremony, no medal, no expression of gratitude could ever fill. Remember their sacrifice, as their lives have been irreversibly reduced, so that we may all continue to enjoy the liberties so valiantly defended by their loved ones.

Abraham Lincoln eloquently captured this sentiment in his letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby of Boston, Massachusetts on November 21st, 1864.

"Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
A. Lincoln"

Today thousands of American service members are in harm's way across the globe. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen; Active Duty, Guardsman and Reservists alike, all bravely confronting the dangers of hatred and extremism so our homeland remains secure. The sobering reality is some of these brave Americans will also pay the ultimate price for freedom. Each death is a tragedy--a heavy, but necessary toll paid to uphold the virtues of liberty and justice.

For me, Memorial Day is about giving thanks. Through our actions to honor and remember our fallen heroes, we offer them and their families our deepest gratitude. Through our service and support for the Armed Forces, we give thanks for the blessing of freedom that is ours simply because we are Americans. And as we close ranks to defeat a determined enemy, we give thanks that the United States of America will always be protected by unbroken line of patriots who stand ready to answer our nation's highest call.