By Jim Marchetti
US Navy, 1984-1992, Gulf War Veteran
Co-Chair, UC Davis Health Veterans Employee Association Employee Resource Group
Ahhhh... Memorial Day, the signal that Summer is here, right? There's no denying that this is one of the thoughts that run through American's mind as this National holiday approaches. Me included. And, I know that most Americans have a general sense of the holiday, but Memorial Day and Veterans Day 'seem' like they're the same, or at least similar, and, they are similar. Then there is the unofficial Armed Forces Day too. But, they are not the same.
A quick history of the holiday. The holiday became a Federal holiday in 1971, but long before that, it was known as Decoration Day. After the Civil War the country's first national cemeteries were established and in the late 1860's Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.
Decoration Day originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars. Some records show that one of the earliest Memorial Day commemorations was organized by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. Nevertheless, in 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day.
Why Waterloo, NY? Waterloo first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866, so it was chosen because it hosted an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
What about the symbolic red poppy I see people wearing on Memorial Day?
Here's the story: (excerpt from history.com) Wearing a red poppy on Memorial Day began with a World War I poem. In the spring of 1915, bright red flowers began poking through the battle-ravaged land across northern France and Flanders (northern Belgium). Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who served as a brigade surgeon for an Allied artillery unit, spotted a cluster of the poppies shortly after serving as a brigade surgeon during the bloody Second Battle of Ypres. The sight of the bright red flowers against the dreary backdrop of war inspired McCrae to pen the poem, "In Flanders Field," in which he gives voice to the soldiers who had been killed in battle and lay buried beneath the poppy-covered grounds. Later that year, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker named Moina Michael read the poem in Ladies' Home Journal and wrote her own poem, "We Shall Keep the Faith" to begin a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to all who died in war. The poppy remains a symbol of remembrance to this day.
In no way do I get upset that people across this incredible country start planning the food for their first barbecue of the season, pulling out their meat (or vegetable)-searing unit of choice, wire brushing the grill and salivating at the first bite of deliciousness. I love that too! As a Veteran, I do carry out my Memorial Day activities differently, but I do celebrate the warriors who have died - I celebrate those who are no longer with us to join in with the celebration. I visit cemeteries. I have spoken at Memorial Day events, and I celebrate that these men and women were willing, just as I was, to hand over a blank check to this country. The biggest check they would ever write. Their check was cashed, so it may seem odd to some that we 'celebrate' Memorial Day. Others are offended, which I understand completely. Truth is, I was one of those folks for a long time.
But, over the years I have spoken to thousands of Veterans and numerous Gold Star families. Through all of those conversations, many of them during Memorial Day weekends, I learned that they too celebrate the holiday. Most will take extra time over the long weekend to honor and mourn the military personnel who have died in the performance of their military duties while serving in the United States Armed Forces. That is what the holiday is about, and every one of us need to know that is what it is about. I encourage everyone to take pause, just a brief moment, and consider what we have in this country, and consider how it is maintained, as well as how it came to be.
Moment of Remembrance: Each year on Memorial Day a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time. Whatever you do on Memorial Day, I want you to enjoy the weekend.