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Memorial Day: Too Much Party, Not Enough Memory

In marking the history of those who have fallen in the line of duty, it helps remind us that there are individuals who continue their service to this country today.

The three-day Memorial Day weekend is here! That means parades, barbecues, Little League and soccer tournaments, weekend getaways and maybe some fireworks on the agenda. Red, white and blue bunting waves at us from storefronts and lampposts, and just try to walk into any bakery without being overwhelmed by tri-color frosting.

What a shame we’re not doing all that much actualmemorializing or remembering.

According to the website USMemorialDay.org, the holiday to pay tribute soldiers who fall in the line of active duty began officially in 1868. Many towns have laid claim to the origin of what has now become our national holiday honoring and remembering those who have given their lives in the armed service of our country.

Yes, I’ll concede it’s a good thing that local celebrations are displays of town pride and patriotic spirit; the day is laden with civic participation, often marked with parades populated with school bands and boy scouts. Politicians speak, people barbeque, Stop & Shop sells fireworks.

But how much of Memorial Day’s true meaning is lost on this one day that’s meant to remind us of the high price of our freedom to display that pride and civic pomp?

Yes, there is ‘celebration’ as part of it, but that’s secondary, and it exists only because we are free to celebrate, thanks to the hard-won battles and dedication of those who served to maintain those freedoms for us.

What should come first is remembering that individuals made the ultimate sacrifice for us to be able to continue to mark such occasion freely.

Held in that one lone day of remembering is the possibility that respect and memorial is carried through the other 364.

Not long ago, a video circulated around the Web that sat heavily with me. It was shot at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and showed the guard breaking his regular, ritualized sentry to yell a warning to the crowd after a few spectators started laughing.

“It is requested that everyone maintains a level of silence, and respect!”

It was an event that sadly, was not unique. When I did a Google search for “Tomb of Unknown Soldier, guard yells,” I hit dozens of possible results.

Just last year I visited Arlington National Cemetery with my family, and I find it surprising that such a lack of respect could have ever taken place. You’re surrounded with reminders of dedication and sacrifice no matter where you look around the sadly majestic place.

Arlington was originally one tour points we had considered leaving out of our short trip—with smaller kids, it would be logistically difficult to navigate and perhaps the meaning would be lost on them.

But something urged us to hop off the tram at the Cemetery stop. We watched that changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. We saw for ourselves the respectful ceremony conducted every half-hour, every day of every year and learned about the tradition it’s grounded in. This tribute has been conducted 24/7 since 1937, in any kind of weather, without fail, reflecting the appropriate honor due those who make the ultimate sacrifice.

How someone could laugh during it is beyond me.

At Arlington, we passed rows upon rows of headstones which underscored some of the scope of war-caused death. And then we saw current soldiers walking toward a funeral for a fallen comrade, reminding us of the price we continue to pay in the battles our country fights today.

It became clear our stop at Arlington was likely one of the most important of our stay in DC.

We learned that in marking the history of those who have fallen in the line of duty, it helps remind us that there are individuals who continue their service to this country today.

As a nation, we need to be more than a bit better with our commitment and dedication to those who do still serve.

When I see members of our armed forces at airports or in shops, I watch to see how the citizens around them react. Quite often there’s no reaction at all. These men and women are due our respect and thanks, yet how many extend a handshake or hold a door, or offer just a simple ‘thank you’?

Last year I overheard a young man at a convenience store ask if there was an opportunity for an ‘armed forces discount,’ something I’d never heard of before. The clerk looked at him strangely, and said a simple “No.” Perhaps in communities where there are more active duty soldiers, this does exist.

Think about the statistics for current soldiers to remind you of the sacrifice: In 2012 alone, 61 active duty soldiers killed themselves, and 34 reservists have done the same. We lost 6,462 American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there are countless others who have come home needing mental health services and intensive medical help, according to the Wounded Warrior Project.

Beyond health needs, the unemployment rate for young veterans is alarmingly high. While 2012 stats show it seems to be dropping, the average unemployment rate for these returning soldiers hit 30 percent in 2011.

It’s clear that more attention needs to be paid to helping veterans cope with the array of challenges they face upon their return. So too, do programs supporting the families who remain at home while their loved ones fight abroad need to be strengthened with appropriate funding and community support.

So perhaps with each turn of the Ferris wheel at the carnival this weekend, with each burger you flip on the grill, keep in mind the sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers on the battlefield.

Memorializing them properly on Memorial Day is the start. Looking to help those who are coming home may be the best kind of respect and memory all our soldiers deserve, every other day of the year.

Wilton Remembers May 23, 2012 at 04:15 PM
Heather, While I can agree with parts of your column, I also think you do not give your Town enough credit. Yes the Parade will be filled with School Bands, Brownies & Daisies, Cub Scouts & Boy Scouts - and every Little League Team in town. Parents and neighbors will cheer them all on from the sidewalks. Volunteer Parents who are coaches, Scout Leaders, help at the Y, The Library, Ambler Farms will all be cheered as they march with their respective organizations. But Wilton Veterans who served their country will also be recognised as they march (and no doubt they will remember friends who they served with who were less fortunate). But these same parade participants will pause in front of the Town's Memorial Remembrance Monuments in Town Center as wreaths are laid. Many will continue on to the Hillside Cemetery for a moving ceremony and the playing of Taps. The same Cemetery as I understand it that a Boy Scout Troop places wreaths on the graves of Wilton Service Men & Women who have fallen at Christmas time. But as you suggest, there is always time and room in our busly lives to thank our men and women in active service as well as our Police and Firemen who protect us on the immediate home front. And yes, we should all do a better job of that year round !
Kit May 23, 2012 at 05:06 PM
Well done Heather. We all should remember that the freedon we prize so highly was won by the sacrifices of the veterans. Wilton's Memorial Day parade is a nice small town event, and I wish more of the participants would continue on to the cemetary for the ceremony there.
Heather Borden Herve May 23, 2012 at 06:06 PM
I appreciate your feedback and insight into this. My "Patch In" column also runs in 30+ other towns with Patch websites, so I'm definitely writing in more of a general tone. In the days leading up to this week, I have gotten more emails than I can count recommending great recipes and ideas for Memorial Day cookouts, I've read lots of feature news stories about long weekend getaway ideas and travel pitfalls ("Rest Stops to Avoid for Memorial Day Travel" in one leading newspaper), and I know of lots of sports tournaments planned for the weekend. As for Wilton specifically, I spoke with a handful of Wiltonians (including individuals affiliated with the American Legion in town) who do feel that less significant attention is paid to the part of the ceremony at the Hillside Cemetery. There is a good deal of crowd dropoff before the parade reaches the cemetery and while it's great the message is out there, I hope it's really heard. My hope is that those more likely to forget exactly what we're commemorating might take an extra reflective moment after reading my column, or might spend a few minutes explaining to their children what the day is really all about. Given how little the civilian public really sees of the impact that current warfare and conflict has, to emphasize remembrance on the day of remembering helps continue to give context about the toll war does have.
Brian Kesselman May 23, 2012 at 06:57 PM
Last year the parade was cancelled due to weather. My son (2nd grade) and I stopped by the Veterans Memorial Green and talked about the names on the stones, the soldiers who have given their lives, and those who still serve for us and our country. A handful of people stopped by to pay respects while we were there including a retired US Navy sailor. It was nice to see. I told my son why I say, "Thank you for your service" when we meet active duty servicemen and servicewomen or veterans. It never ceases to amaze me how surprised veterans are when I say that. Obviously it doesn't happen often enough. They are OUR veterans because they serve our citizens and our country here and abroad. As citizens of the United States of America, since the soldiers are "ours," we have a responsibility to take care of them and to honor them. I hope we all thank our veterans while they are alive, and recognize that it is important to honor them when they are gone.
SDSSWilton May 24, 2012 at 12:15 AM
Each year, it is both an honor and priviledge to be apart of the Wilton Memorial Day Parade. Countless people have made the ultimate sacrifice while serving this wonderful country. We must not take for granted all that we have, or forget the selfless and courageous acts of our fallen service men and women . Let us all join together to honor and remember their sacrifice. Thank you to Wilton Memorial Day Parade Committee for all of the hard work, time and dedication you have put into organizing this wonderful event for our community. NO RAIN! :)

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