Another Memorial Day is on the horizon, the eighth since the day took on personal meaning for me. Once again, I’m overwhelmed with events to attend, speeches to make, and attempting to appear whole in public while hiding my shattered heart. As happens every year, there is the inevitable discussion of the appropriateness of wishing others a “Happy” Memorial Day. Sadly, like nearly everything else in our National discourse, this has become a polarizing subject. The fact this is playing out in my community of Gold Stars, military and veterans is particularly disheartening. And it has to stop.
Several times over the past eight years, I’ve shared my opinion on the subject with a half-dozen pieces on the topic, oftentimes with a decidedly dark humor. My message is always the same, that it is right and good to celebrate the day, to wish each other and ourselves a “Happy” Memorial Day while we remember the true meaning of this one day of the year.
Memorial Day is not Veterans Day, it is not Armed Forces Day, and it is not a day to remember all those whose calling is to serve their community as doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, paramedics or firefighters. No matter how great a person she was, it is not the day to recognize your favorite Auntie, unless she died in service to our nation.
Memorial Day is when we are to collectively pause and remember those who have given their lives in our Armed Forces. Period. We do not recognize all those who served their country on this day, though it is both common and usual for veterans to be the recipients of our honor and remembrance on Memorial Day. I’ve quipped before, it is hard to thank a headstone, so we thank the living as proxies for the dead.
Memorial Day is also not Gold Star Mothers Day, or Gold Star Family Day. Since 1935, by Presidential Proclamation, the last Sunday of September is the day we recognize the grief of mothers whose sons and daughters lost their lives in the Armed Forces. Here in Illinois, the last Saturday of September is Gold Star Family Day, a separate day to maintain recognition of the unique loss of a mother while acknowledging the grief the entire family feels when a loved one lays down their life in service to us all.
I was once asked by a Professor of psychology who has done extensive research on PTSD, why is the loss of a loved one in the military different from any other loss? My immediate response was, “There is no other loss that has a National day of remembrance”. The truth is, this simple fact both mitigates and complicates the grief. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, particularly if that person was young and healthy, the loss is a shock. It may seem strange to think that a death in the military is a surprise. Afterall, we all know that service in the Armed Forces is a dangerous occupation, particularly during a time of war. Still, no one ever thinks it will happen to them or their loved one.
This is not just wishful thinking or whistling past the graveyard, it is supported by logic, reason and statistics. Since September 11, 2001, approximately 3 million of our young and healthy, best and brightest, have deployed to a war zone. In the past nearly 18 years, just under 7,000 have died as a result of enemy action. Who would ever think their loved one would be one of the .002%? You have a better chance of being struck and killed by a car as a pedestrian. Everyone knows you can get run over each time you step out your door, but no one really believes it will happen to them.
Memorial Day then becomes the day your private grief is public. There are few things harder than to have this most intimate detail of your existence on public display, but the support received by those who know what the day means smooths the jagged edges of your broken heart.
On Memorial Day, your personal grief is acknowledged and respected, and put into a larger perspective. Your loved one chose to serve this Nation, and their choice cost them their life. When we receive the knock on the door and the calls and messages from our loved ones’ brothers and sisters in arms, up to and including their Chain of Command, we’re reminded with words to the effect of,
He knew the risks, and did it anyway. For that, we are forever humbled and grateful, and hope your pride in him and the honor that is his due will comfort you as you mourn. We mourn with you.
On this one day, that message is writ large and we see it expressed at every service, event, parade, ceremony and remembrance, and it helps lighten the weight of grief that threatens to crush us.
So, what is the real issue over “Happy” of "Happy Memorial Day"? It’s not that we don’t think it appropriate to celebrate all we have because of the sacrifice of not only our loved one, but all who gave their lives in service to the Nation. The problem is, too many celebrate the day without any understanding or recognition of the reason for the three-day weekend. For too many, even if they recognize it is a day to fly the flag, to decorate with red, white and blue, and to express patriotism, those thoughts are at best secondary to the day off work, the BBQ’s and mattress sales.
Inevitably, I and all those for whom Memorial Day is personal will be faced with the most difficult of situations. There is always some clueless civilian who has no idea what the day means and doesn't even connect the color scheme to the day. In those moments, it is understandable that we become upset, or even offended. How could we not? I know I’ve been upset by displays of callous ignorance and disregard of this sacred day. But, just like in any other conversation or encounter in which we become offended, it is on us to differentiate being offended from an intended offense.
It is never appropriate to respond to the cashier who offers the perfunctory “Have a Happy Memorial Day” with anger or vitriol. It is never acceptable to respond to a common courtesy, to a mere norm of society that is not intended to be offensive with outrage and anger. There is a famous video circulating of a six foot-plus transgender woman shrieking at some kid working as a cashier because he said, “Sir”. It was most likely a reflexive response, but this transgender woman reacted as if this kid was acting out of malice. Even if that were the case, the response was out of proportion.
This incident, captured on video by another customer is indicative of everything wrong with our society, and our National discourse. Somehow, we’ve come to a point where we expect every person we encounter to address us, treat us, and respond to us according to a set of rules by which we choose to abide. Worse, we are not allowing them the same right.
Every interaction in public, and too many in private, are fraught with concerns over how the other person will react. We do this under the guise of making the world more civilized and tolerant but we do it in the most uncivilized and intolerant ways. Then, when we have our assumed, projected biases confirmed we’re outraged and bemoan that the world has become less tolerant, less civilized, less understanding, less inclusive, and just simply less.
At some point, we have to stop demanding others live, act and speak in accordance with our sensibilities. We have to stop assuming others know better and are acting with malevolent intent. When it comes to the issue of “Happy” Memorial Day, the inherent disconnect from the meaning of the day is particularly appalling. If we want others to understand and recognize the meaning of the day, we would be much better off modeling the ideals for which our loved one served and sacrificed.
We are “E Plurbis Unum”, Out of Many, One. One nation made up of many cultures, beliefs and ways of life. Our loved ones served so that we can continue to live, speak, act and believe as we choose. They believed this so strongly, they were willing to lay down their lives in service to the ideals enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Our service men and women were willing to risk their lives in fights against tyrants and despots who prohibit their own people from expressing themselves as they see fit, and who would if given the chance deprive us of what we believe to be natural rights as well. It is beyond ironic then for someone to attack a hapless cashier whose job requires her to say, “Have a Happy Memorial Day” to every customer, because we assume they don’t know what the day means. Or worse, because they are not abiding by personal rules we attempt to impose on every stranger we encounter. It is always wrong to attack another person for not acting or speaking how we want or expect, but when the topic is “Happy” Memorial Day, we are demeaning our loved one’s sacrifice.
Less than one percent of our population serves in the Armed Forces, and a tiny fraction of that one percent, thankfully, has given their life in that service. We, as the families and community who feel that loss most deeply have an obligation to model the ideals under which our loved one served. We have an opportunity to impact not only recognition of the true meaning behind the unofficial kick-off to summer, but to begin to change the tone of our national discourse on so very many topics.
Simply serving in the Armed Forces proved our loved ones to be better than most, proved they understood and embraced the ideals upon which our Nation was founded. They understood words like honor, service and integrity in ways most can’t begin to imagine. Like so many things for which we as their families and loved ones never asked, it now falls to us to carry on their legacy of service. I can think of no better way to honor their service and sacrifice than to display kindness and tolerance.
One of the most frequent questions I receive is, how would you like others to honor and remember your son’s service and sacrifice? My answer is simple, and one we all can and should strive to achieve.
Live the life he fought and died to defend. Be worthy of the sacrifice he and so many others have made by embracing the ideals under which he served. That includes responding to the next, “Have a Happy Memorial Day” with grace. Yes, it is “Happy” Memorial Day, even if that person doesn’t know why.