I remember getting off of a bus in Denver, Colorado in 1969 and being met by a group of young people of a type known then as ‘hippies.’ I was an eighteen year old unsophisticated country boy who was proud to be serving my country and wearing the blue uniform of the United States Air Force. I remember being puzzled at first as to why this group of hippies, most of whom were about my own age, began hurling rocks and bricks at me and others in my group who were simply headed for an assignment at Lowery Air Force Base. One of the older and wiser members of my group (he was nineteen, as I remember) advised me that they were ‘war protestors,’ and were expressing their hatred of war and the military in general by stoning us kids who were only days out of basic training.
Please don’t send sympathy cards. The same thing happened to thousands of other soldiers during the Vietnam era. It was a sad time in our history, but it is over. I brought it up only to emphasize how absolutely thrilled I am at the way most people of today express their admiration and appreciation for those who are in uniform. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have heard people say to a youngster in desert camouflage walking through an airport or a shopping mall, “Thank you for your service to our country.” Recently, a National Guard company returned to a nearby community after serving a year in Afghanistan. They were met at the regional airport by a cheering crowd of friends and family, and folks from small towns along the way lined the highway waving flags for the thirty miles back to their home town. Scenes like that have occurred across the length and width of the nation in recent years. No matter how many times I hear of it, this kind of community outreach and thankfulness always brings a grateful tear to my eyes.
That’s what Memorial Day is all about. From the sacrifices made by poorly equipped Continental Army troops in 1776 to those brave Americans serving here and abroad today to insure that our freedoms are a reality instead of just an idea, we owe them a debt of gratitude and remembrance. I never served a day in a combat zone, so I’m not really qualified to speak of heroes, but I can assure you that there are heroes living among us. You may sit next to one in church or at work; you may talk to one every day and not know it. As a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I remember being shocked to learn that one of the janitors in our dormitory, an unassuming man who I nodded or spoke to almost every day, was a Medal of Honor recipient from WWII. Most heroes are like that…quiet, unassuming, and living a life of dedicated service even though their years of uniformed service may be over.
“Thank you for your service.” Keep that phrase on the tip of your tongue and offer it to someone every day. Memorial Day doesn’t have to happen only one day every year.
Moina Michael may have summed up Memorial Day the best when, after reading John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, she added a poetic addendum:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows in fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.