Sunday, May 24, 2009

Why we observe Memorial Day...

Tonight, while talking to my children about this sacred day, and mentioning that this day is set aside to honor those who have died in defense of our country, one of them said, "I thought Veterans Day was for honoring our veterans." While this is a true statement, there is a common misunderstanding about the two holidays and the purpose of each.

Armistice Day (later known as Veterans Day), was originally designated in 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson to remind Americans of the tragedy of war and to commemorate the ending of World War I in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

Shortly after, The Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier was established in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1938, Congress established the day as a national holiday. One year later, World War II broke out. Over 400,000 American troops died in that terrible war putting an end to the idea that WWI was "The war to end all wars!"

During the Korean War (1950-1953), 36,000 more Americans died and Congress considered changing the holiday to commemorate veterans of all wars, not just those who served in WWI. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill proclaiming the holiday a commemoration of all wars and changing its name to Veteran's Day.

While Veterans Day is extremely important, as a day we honor all veterans, Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day) is specifically designated as a day we reverently honor those who gave the supreme sacrifice by dying in defense of this nation (some of the same veterans we honor on Veteran's Day).

Decoration Day owes its beginning to the following General Order issued shortly after the end of the War Between The States also known as the Civil War:

    General Orders No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868

    i. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

    We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

    If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.

    Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from his honor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.

    ii. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

    iii. Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective.

    By order of


    Adjutant General

    WM. T. COLLINS, A.A.G.

In the beginning, May 30th, Decoration day, was only observed by the northern states. The southern states refused to acknowledge the day and honored their dead on another day until after World War I when the holiday was officially changed to honor the dead, of not just the Civil War, but those who died defending our nation in any war, and the name was changed to Memorial Day.

There are many who feel that official observance of Memorial day should be returned to May 30th. I am one of those who feel this way. I feel that the holiday has lost most of its intended reverence and quiet purpose in order to establish another three day holiday weekend.

While most people have forgotten the purpose, or have never learned it in the first place, I want to take a moment to express my gratitude for an organization that still strives to develop patriotism in the youth of our great nation.

On Thursday, I attended the 41st Memorial Tribute held at the Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, Oregon. It was sponsored by the Thunderbird District of the Cascade Pacific Council of the Boy Scouts of America. A short memorial service was held in which the Marines and hundreds of Scouts presented The Colors of our nation before the 2000+ Scouts and Scouters in attendance.
A short speech was given by Colonel Leah Sundquist, who is not only an active veteran but a Gold Award recipient with 41 years tenure in the Girl Scout organization. She spoke of leadership and the oath that all Scouts take to honor God, Country, and other fellow human beings. As an Eagle Scout of the Class of 1973, and a current Scouter with 45 years tenure, I too have taken this sacred oath many times and live by it to this day.

As the American Legion, City of Roses Musicians Post #185, (whom my 75-year old father and Veteran of the Korean War is a member of), played the National Anthem, tears streamed down my cheeks as I felt the spirits of the 131,000 veterans that are buried or entombed at the sacred and hallowed cemetery.

I completely lost it when the bagpipes played as the giant flag that stands watch over the graves was lowered to half-staff and Taps was played while the Marines fired a 21-gun salute. Those sounds brought back a rush of memories from the services where we buried my grandfather, my great uncle, my father-in-law, and just recently my uncle in this very cemetery, all veterans representing service in all wars from World War I through Viet Nam.

Fortunately, none of them had to make the supreme sacrifice in the service of their country, but I know that they had many friends and comrades that did. And it is with honor and reverence that I will observe those that did this Memorial Day.

After the memorial tribute, all of the Scouts respectfully placed flags at all of the 131,000 graves. Each flag was placed while the Scout quietly read aloud the name of the veteran and then offered a hand salute in respect.

My father and I visited the niche that holds the remains of my Uncle Ken, who served during the Korean War like my father.

Later, I was fortunate enough to be present when an unknown Eagle Scout placed a flag at the grave of my father-in-law, Lt. Colonel Donald F. Rudolph, US Air Force, who served during World War II, and during the Korean and Viet Nam Wars.

Please take the time to think about the sacrifices these men and women made to defend our sacred Constitution from all threats foreign and domestic so that we may live in a free nation. Please think about the lonely battlefields that flowed red with the blood of our brothers and sisters so that we can enjoy this holiday in safety and peace.

God bless our veterans and God bless America... Long my she live.