It started in 1868, three years after the end of the bloodiest war in this nation’s history, a war that pitted brother against brother for the very soul of the nation. It started as Decoration Day in Arlington National Cemetery, and according to the Veterans Administration, the speeches were given from the veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, his wife, Julia, along with other Washington, D.C., dignitaries presided over the ceremonies. It’s thought May 30 was chosen because flowers would be in bloom to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers.
While the Arlington ceremony was the “official” first, there are several local observances that claim the title from Macon to Columbus and to Columbus, Mississippi, and to Richmond, Virginia, as early as 1866.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Memorial Day was being held on May 30 throughout the nation. Still, the day was reserved to honor Civil War dead in most cases. That would soon change.
After World War I —“The War to End All Wars” — ended in 1919, Memorial Day was expanded to include all of America’s war dead — an ever increasing number.
While it seems Memorial Day has been around forever, it wasn’t a national holiday until Congress acted in 1971. According to the VA, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan who started Decoration Day in 1868 wanted the soldiers’ graves decorated with “the choicest flowers of springtime.” And he admonished, “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. ... Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
We have to ask ourselves the question: Have we forgotten their sacrifice? Certainly, we put on a good show of patriotism when Memorial Day comes around each year. We make all the right gestures and say all the right things, but most Americans are more divorced from our active duty military members than at any other time in our history. According to the Defense Manpower Data Center, only 0.4 percent of the American population is active-duty military. Of the 535 members of Congress, only 115 (20 percent) have served in the military. That’s 50 percent fewer than the number of former military members who served in Congress in 1975.
When we stop and think a bit about the sacrifices our military men and women have made over our history, it makes it hard to sit back and enjoy our hot dogs and hamburgers. It should make us, at the very least, take a moment to remember them — and remember their families. While this is a day of honor for their departed loved ones, it’s also a day of nostalgia and one of what life might have been.
We are the most powerful nation on Earth thanks to the hard work of our military men and women, and though that power can’t bring back any of the more than 2 million Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice, we can honor their memories with more than buying an extra six-pack. And we can do better for those who have followed in their footsteps. For example, we need to fix the Veterans Administration. It is unconscionable that the health care of our veterans remains compromised.
Another focus should be on taking care of the families our military personnel leave behind. In this world that is becoming more dangerous every day, family stress rides the deployment wagon, and more frequent deployments add pressure to an already tough situation.
Something else is going on in the branches of our military services. The 2013 Department of Veterans Affairs study that researched suicides from 1999 to 2010 revealed that approximately 22 veterans were committing suicide per day. But the Department of Defense released another troubling statistic that can’t be explained: 85 percent of the military members who committed suicide have not seen combat and 52 percent have never been deployed. All of this while the Pentagon spends $2 billion a year on mental health and the VA spent another $7 billion in 2014. Could homelessness, drug addiction, unemployment, PTHD and delayed treatment be contributing factors?
So this Memorial Day take some time to understand not only what our military families have gone through and are going through but also what we have to demand from our government to make their lives easier. They have given us their best, and they deserve our best.