Memorial Day is the most solemn of all our National Holidays. It is not about just a single person or event. It is far larger.
For years, I struggled with being able to properly put into words how best to describe Memorial Day. A couple of years ago I received a quote from a very good friend that expresses my thoughts better than ever before and I would like to share it with you. I quote – “Memorial Day is the day when we pay our respects to those, who in Abraham Lincoln’s words, ‘gave their last full measure of devotion’. It is through their actions that we enjoy the blessings of Liberty. It is through the tears of their families that we have the Freedoms we often take for granted.” Ladies and gentlemen – Memorial Day is truly a very special day.
There is today and always has been much debate about the origin of the very first Memorial Day. Some attribute it to the founding of Decoration Day in the South before the end of the Civil War — when women decorated the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers in Warrenton, VA and Savannah, GA. In the North – Boalsburg, PA and Waterloo, NY lay claim that their towns were the first to celebrate the holiday. Gettysburg itself has an intimate connection with the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in 1863 and this year will host its 152nd annual Memorial Day Parade – the oldest continuous Memorial Day Parade in the Nation.
In 1868, General John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic made a proclamation that May 30th would be designated as a day to strew flowers or otherwise decorate the graves of comrades who died in defense of their Country during the late Rebellion. During the first celebration of Memorial Day, President Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery and 5,000 participants decorated over 20,000 Union and Confederate graves. By the late 1800’s, communities all over the Country had begun to celebrate Memorial Day. After WWI the tribute was extended to honor those who had lost their lives in all of America’s wars and not just the Civil War, This tradition has continued on through the present day.
In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Since 1866 the town has made Memorial Day an annual event where businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
Sadly in 1971 the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill which moved several patriotic holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates, to the last Monday of the month to allow a 3 day weekend. This was the beginning of the true meaning of Memorial Day being lost to convenience and modern day customs. Many people today have little or no knowledge of what Memorial Day really represents. Far too many young Americans mistakenly think it is the reason for a long weekend, the date when the beaches open or an occasion for retailers to have big sales promotions.
Although many of the original traditions have vanished, fortunately, many of them still flourish. One example of this is — since the 1950’s – the men of the 3rd United States Army Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) place over 230,000 at graves in Arlington National Cemetery and then patrol the grounds the entire weekend to insure that each flag remains standing. In 2000 the National Moment of Remembrance Resolution was passed and asks that at exactly 3:00 PM on Memorial Day – May 30th – all Americans pause from what they are doing and observe a moment of silence to pay respect to our fallen service members of all wars.
Despite the controversy and debate over the origins, dates and locations of the first Memorial Day – one thing is certain. It is a solemn occasion. Hopefully we will return to a time when everyone will once again understand that Memorial Day is a day set aside to pay solemn respect to those who have given their all in the service of our Country. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. The traditional decorating of graves, ceremonies such as the ones being held throughout the County this weekend or maybe more personal or quiet methods such as a silent prayer or moment of silence. All are appropriate and pay proper tribute to those who have served our Country and are no longer with us.
On the sloping hills of Arlington National Cemetery with its row on row of simple white markers, in other National Cemeteries across our Nation and in small town cemeteries such as the ones we have scattered around the County. Each one of those markers is a monument to these heroes. Their lives ended in places such as Bunker Hill, Lexington, Yorktown, New Orleans, Bladensburg, Buena Vista , Chapultepec, San Juan Hill, Belleau Wood, The Argonne, Omaha Beach, Salerno and halfway around the world on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Pork Chop Hill, the Chosin Reservoir, in a hundred rice paddies and jungles of a place called Vietnam. In the cities and deserts of Iraq and the mountains and villages of Afghanistan and most recently in Syria.
They add up to only a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our freedom.
Under one such marker in a small cemetery named Bloomer City Cemetery, in Wisconsin, lies a young man — Martin Treptow — who left his job in a small town barber shop in 1917 to go to France with the famed Rainbow Division. There, on the western front, he was killed while carrying a message between battalions under heavy artillery fire.
We are told that on his body was found a diary. On the flyleaf under the heading, “My Pledge,” he had written these words: “America must win this war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.”
The indomitable fighting spirit of Private Martin Treptow exemplifies the same fighting spirit and sacrifice made by Americans throughout our illustrious history. Today is the one day each year that is set aside to honor and remember them. They deserve no less.
In today’s tumultuous and uncertain times, there are many who say that we have no heroes, to them I suggest – you just aren’t looking in the right place. We don’t have to go very far to find some real current day heroes. We have them living in our midst. The Adams County Allied Veterans Honor Guard, who perform the final military honors for our County Veterans and their families, are great examples of these heroes. We should recognize these men and women for their selfless dedication to the County’s deceased Veterans and their families by providing the final military honors at their funerals. This includes but is not limited to – a flag folding detail, presentation of the flag to the next of kin, a rifle detail to perform the Memorial volley and finally the poignant ending of every military funeral – the sounding of Taps.
It is important to note that these Veterans, most aged 60, 70, 80 and even a few in their 90s perform theses duties in blazing heat, freezing cold, pouring rain and blinding snow — often with only a day or two’s notice. They arrive at the cemetery in advance of the funeral procession and sometimes wait for an hour or more until it arrives. It is also extremely important to understand that they receive NO, I repeat, NO compensation for providing this service and volunteering of their time. They do it for several reasons, most that can only be understood by a fellow Veteran. They do it as a display of honor and respect for the service the deceased Veteran has rendered our Country. They do it as a final tribute to their comrade in arms as he or she departs our mortal world. And they do it to show their comradeship and allegiance to all for which they stand.
In this age of uncertainty and ever changing events, it would be easy for the less hearty of us to retreat to the position of feeling overwhelmed and negative about our future. Instead, I submit to you that as long as we have American Patriots like those Veterans mentioned above and a generation of young men and women eager and willing to serve our Country — that the future of America is as bright as it has ever been.
I would like to close with a paraphrased quote from President Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address.
“The challenges we are facing today do not require of us the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow and so many thousands of others were called upon to make. It does require, however, our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together, with God’s help, we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.”
And, after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.