Memorial Day: One Holiday, Two Countries

For most Americans, Memorial Day weekend marks the triumphant return of summer: a trip to the beach and a day off of work – barbecues, beers and bargains. Yet, as most Americans head to the beach or the mall, many veterans and military families will travel to a cemetery. For veterans, there is no day of the year when the civilian-military divide feels greater.

On Memorial Day, it feels like we are citizens of two different countries. This holiday should be a solemn day of remembrance for the more than one million American servicemembers of all generations who have given their lives in defense of our country, including the 5,454 men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a humbling occasion to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. But unfortunately, the significance of the day is often lost under the coolers and beach blankets in the trunk of the car.

Instead of driving to the beach, we’re heading to our nation’s capital, where IAVA members and their families will take part in a range of remembrance events. In Washington, we’ll join Vice President Biden and other veterans’ groups in the annual wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.  We will visit Section 60, where the OIF/OEF veterans are buried—including CSM Eric Cooke and SPC Robert Wise, two men I served with in Iraq – two men that my soldiers and I will never forget. We will stand together on Arlington’s hallowed ground to honor our fallen.

Arlington Cemetery is a place of tremendous symbolism. It is a place for deep reflection and essential learning.  On Monday, Arlington is where the eyes of our nation will be focused. But on this immensely important day, President Obama and his family will not be there to stand with us. And that is unfortunate. As our Commander in Chief, it is the President’s duty to deliver our most important message in the most powerful way-and to always lead by example. Just like all of our troops do.

Every time I am at Arlington, I think about CSM Cooke and SPC Wise. I also think about my grandfather who spent three years in the South Pacific in World War II.  I think about what he had to go through fighting the Japanese, getting malaria, and being away from home for so long.  If you saw HBO’s The Pacific, you got the picture. He didn’t talk to my grandmother for three years. Not even a single phone call. And that is part of the lesson.  Men like my grandfather served and sacrificed so that we could live today in a world of freedom and relative safety. He was just one of the hundreds of thousands of servicemembers who came before us and built our country into what it is today. Memorial Day is observed as a national holiday to ensure that we, as a nation, never take that service and sacrifice for granted.

And that message has never been more important. When my grandfather came home from World War II, he returned to a country that felt the war personally (12% of the American public had served). He came home to a nation committed to supporting the warriors.  Today’s veterans are returning to a country in which very few Americans have felt the cost of war, so  very few Americans are in touch with the challenges our community is facing. Even on the most sacred remembrance day of the year, and after nine years of war on two fronts, too many Americans see Monday as just another play day. 

But you can help change that. Take a moment this Monday to pause and pay respect to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation.  Every American can pledge to help make Memorial Day the day of remembrance, not the day of mattress sales. Even if you’re at the beach, you can take a moment to pause with your family and teach your kids what Memorial Day signifies. You can teach yourself and your family about what it means to serve your family, your community, and your country.   

We can honor the fallen by supporting the living. I hope this Memorial Day marks the start of unparalleled support for those returning from war. Veterans don’t need more empty political talk, they need real support and real action.  Let’s make this the year we recommit ourselves to our country’s heroes, and to making a difference in their lives. And to never forgetting their sacrifice. Ever.