Monday, May 28, 2007 is Memorial Day. Formerly known as Decoration Day, this is the time we set aside to honor those who died in war serving the United States of America. In Winona, Minnesota there is a ceremony down at the lake park band shell, complete with the municipal band, veterans in uniform, a 21-gun salute, guest speakers and about 500 attendees. It is a solemn occasion where respect of the highest human order is conferred upon men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice, whether that sacrifice took place at Antietam, Meuse-Argonne, Guadalcanal, Inchon, Loc Ninh, or Fallujah.
For the most part those who died were too young to marry and never knew the joy of seeing their children born and raised. Many of them never felt the thrill of falling in love. Some of them had never even been kissed, except by their Mothers. Their parents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles shed mountains of tears when they learned of their fate. Their teachers and preachers were broken-hearted. The nation never received the fruits of their genius. Some of them could have devised a cure for cancer or a new source of energy; who knows for sure.
They joined the military for a variety of reasons, but mainly it was for the love of their country and a profound sense of duty. Despite the danger, they were optimistic that they wouldn’t die, banking on the odds that their number wouldn’t come up. For most of them the fatal wound was sudden and humane. Others would suffer long, painful deaths on a battlefield or in an army hospital. Some were genuine heroes because of their acts of bravery on the field of battle. Most just died, but to me they were all heroes.
When I was a college student the Vietnam War was in full swing. The government needed so many troops that they cancelled student deferments. We were all subject to a lottery, based on our birth dates. If your birthday came up early in the lottery you were headed to Vietnam. If you were fortunate enough to have your birthday come up late in the lottery you were virtually assured you would not have to serve in the military. I lucked out that evening with a relatively high number, 216 out of 365. As a result of a game of chance, I was never drafted and was spared the obligation of military service.
When I attend Memorial Day observances at the band shell near Lake Winona, I am grateful to my brothers and sisters who served. It will be no different this year as I think about all who died and sit next to Veterans; the heroes who lived. Some of the Veterans at our Memorial Day ceremony have been very successful financially while others have struggled their entire lives to make ends meet. Some hold positions of power and status while others are just ordinary working folks. None of their accomplishments or civilian honors means a darned thing to me as I sit with them on Monday. On Memorial Day I worship them and ground they stand on; all of them!
These Veterans, dead and alive, have fought and risked their lives so I can enjoy a picnic with my family and breathe the precious air of freedom in the greatest country in the world, the United States of America. While the drafters of the US Constitution created a nearly perfect democracy, none of that would mean a thing if the Veterans with whom I sit on Memorial Day hadn’t defended our country. It is the Veterans who have preserved my liberty and secured my birthright as a free American. As I have grown older and wiser I’ve come to the conclusion that the highest, most sacred title that can be earned and bestowed on any American is that of “Veteran.” When I go to my grave there will be no markings on my stone indicating that I am a Veteran, but oh how I have benefited because of you, my brothers and sisters!
I want to close with an admonition for all of us on the days after Memorial Day 2007. Any time you’re in an airport or a shopping center and see a young man or woman in a military uniform, take a second to go up to them and say, “I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate the sacrifices you make every day to serve our country.” They will politely thank you, probably with a “Mam” or “Sir” as part of the sentence. Greet them sincerely and often; it costs you but a few seconds of your time and you owe it to every last one of them.
My friends, we who feast on the fruits of liberty can never repay the debt we owe to our active soldiers and Veterans. Let’s thank them every time we get a chance. For our current soldiers and national-guard members, that “thank you” will bring them a deserved feeling of importance and gratitude. For aging Veterans who served long ago our words are a dwindling opportunity to thank them before it is too late. Give them a hug. Don’t be afraid to shed a tear or two. God bless Memorial Day, God bless our country, and God bless our Veterans.