Remembering Brave Service Members Who Have Died In Past Wars

Ken Walcheck

May is the month when we Americans celebrate Memorial Day, a federal holiday – a day where we honor and celebrate the brave service of those who died in or as a result of any war. Despite what is commonly believed, the United States does not have any ‘national’ holidays. What it does have are eleven federal holidays designated by the United States Congress, which includes Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday of May. First proclaimed as Decoration Day in 1868 in reference to the practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers, its name was changed to Memorial Day in 1882. It was founded to pay tribute to those who were killed in the American Civil War, but after World War I the focus changed to all soldiers who died in or as a result of any war. For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date General John A. Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. But in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to celebrate a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change went into effect in 1971. The same law declared Memorial Day as a federal holiday. Yet it was only after World War II that Memorial Day began to gain national prominence.

How is Memorial Day celebrated? For some Americans, Memorial Day is a day for outdoor recreation and barbecues, a day to go to the beach, or take a three-day camping  trip. For some folks, it’s the day that unofficially signifies the start of summer. On a more somber note, there are other Americans who attend Memorial Day parades and memorials, and visit cemeteries across the country, honoring U.S. military service members who have died as a result of a war. Flags are typically flown at half-staff to commemorate the federal holiday, and on this day a national moment of remembrance takes place across the country at 3:00 P.M. local time.

On this day you may see people wearing a red poppy flower on their outer garment. The red poppy became a symbol to honor veterans who have died after World War I, when Canada’s Colonel John McCrae wrote a poem about the red poppies that blow onto the graves of dead soldiers.

Red poppies are the official memorial flower for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and artificial red poppies are sold around the time of Memorial Day to raise money to assist veterans.

Memorial Day is commemorated at Arlington National Cemetery each year with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. Traditionally, the President or Vice President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

As a Korean War veteran, I was always impressed with President James A. Garfield’s message  delivered at Arlington National
Cemetery on May 30, 1868:

“We do not know one
promise these men, our pledge they gave, one word they spoke, but we know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens.
For love of country they
accepted death, and thus
resolved all doubts, and
made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

Well said, Mr. President!

This was made by

Ken Walcheck

Ken Walcheck is a Bozeman resident, and a retired Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Information Wildlife Biologist. He continues to write Montana natural history wildlife articles.

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