Honoring Those Who Sacrificed Their Lives in Service

Cemeteries are solemn grounds. Maybe none so solemn as Arlington National Cemetery. I first visited the cemetery in Arlington when I was a young adult. I remember being struck by the countless gravestones with dates of death for such young men between 1861 and 1864. These visual reminders were a much greater history lesson than reading any book or any history class. The dates of the Civil War would be forever etched in my brain. And the remembrance of the astounding numbers of soldiers who sacrificed their lives in this devastating war (1861-1864). 

On May 30, 1868, former Union General and future president James Garfield, addressed an audience of 5,000 at Arlington National Cemetery:

“Thousands of soldiers are today turning aside in the march of life to visit the silent encampments of dead comrades who once fought by their side. From many thousand homes, whose light was put out when a soldier fell, there go forth to-day to join these solemn processions loving kindred and friends, from whose heart the shadow of grief will never be lifted till the light of the eternal world dawns upon them.”

After Garfield spoke, the crowd made their way into the cemetery to visit the more than 20,000 graves of Civil War Union soldiers in the newly formed cemetery in Arlington. They went to pay homage to the fallen soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers and wreaths. By proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic of former Union soldiers, May 30, 1968, was the first Decoration Day, later to be known as Memorial Day.

At this time, Decoration Day was not an official holiday, but a day of remembrance for people across the country. The idea was to honor the war’s dead by decorating the graves of Union soldiers.

In the following years, the event went on to inspire local observances in other states. In 1873, New York became the first state to declare May 30 as an official Decoration Day holiday. Then local municipalities and states adopted resolutions to make Decoration Day an official holiday. By 1890, all of the former Union states had adopted a Decoration Day. After the first World War, it became a day of remembrance for all American soldiers who died in any battles throughout history, and the term Decoration Day became replaced with “Memorial Day.”

From 1968 to 1970 Memorial Day was observed on May 30. In 1971, Congress officially established Memorial Day with the passing of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This act declared major holidays would be observed on specific Mondays to give federal employees three-day weekends. This declaration stated that Memorial Day would always be observed on the last Monday in May and codified the name “Memorial Day” into law. By this time there were millions of vets from later wars.

After Memorial Day became a three-day weekend holiday, our armed forces were continuing to lose their lives abroad. But back at home, Memorial Day was becoming less about remembrance and more about the unofficial kick-off to summer, celebrated with parties and shopping sprees. In an effort to remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day and its significance, the U.S. government introduced a resolution in 2000 to re-educate Americans about Memorial Day. The “National Moment of Remembrance” asked Americans to take part in a moment of remembrance and respect at 3:00 pm each Memorial Day. Americans were re-minded to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice with their very lives, both long ago, as well as those who have fallen more recently in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

This Memorial Day, as we reflect on those we have lost, ones who are overseas and the veterans who we have in our lives, let’s also remember where this day came from and its roots. On this Monday, May 27, let’s all pause at 3:00 p.m. local time. Let’s take one minute from our busy lives in an act of national unity to remember the sacrifices made by the millions in the American armed forces.

Another way to commemorate the holiday is to buy a red poppy. All over the world the red poppy flower symbolizes remembrance for the fallen soldiers. During the days leading up to Memorial Day, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars take donations for poppies. Disabled veterans hospitals have been assembling these poppies since 1924, and the donations benefit veterans.

Although Memorial Day is about honoring and remembering past soldiers, I am sure living vet-erans and those currently serving would greatly appreciate being recognized and thanked. Con-sider making packages or writing a letter to someone serving overseas. For a more local op-tion, the Beyond the Call of Duty program has organized a 5K run/walk at Fairmount Memorial Park, 5200 W. Wellesley, Spokane. The Race to Remember not only raises funds but pays trib-ute “to ensure the fallen are never forgotten” with 1,500-plus, full-size American flags carried through the race on Saturday, May 26 at 8:30 a.m. For $25 you can register online anytime or in person before the race between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. The course will be marked by signs, arrows on the ground, and start and finish flags throughout the Fairmount Memorial Park cemetery. (https://runsignup.com/Race/WA/Spokane/FMARaceToRemember)

The Liberty Lake Centennial Rotary Club will be hosting a breakfast event at Pavilion Park in Liberty Lake from 8-10:30 a.m. on Monday, May 27. The event is “a tribute to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in serving our country.” The program begins at 9 a.m. and will feature keynote speaker Tim Fitzgerald, a Spokane County clerk and retired Marine Corps colonel and aviator.

The club is also offering an opportunity “to sponsor a luminary for those who would like to recognize a service member whom they have lost.” The luminaries will be displayed at the park on Memorial Day weekend. All proceeds go to support Inland Northwest Honor Flight and The Liberty Lake Hometown Heroes Project. (https://www.strideevents.com/memorial-day-tribute/event-information)

Amy McGarry grew up in Spokane Valley, Washington. After a 20-year hiatus, she moved back to Spokane Valley where she lives with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is the author of “I am Farang: Adventures of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand” available on Amazon.com, Auntie’s Bookstore, and Barnes and Noble.


By Amy McGarry

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