Friday, May 28, 2021

Memorial Day: Remembering Our Nation's Fallen Heroes

What does Memorial Day mean to you? As a disabled veteran, Memorial Day means a number, 400,000, and what it symbolizes. That's how many people are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The ground where these brave men and women are buried was once the property of Mary Anna Custis Lee, the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and great granddaughter of Martha Washington. It was seized by Union troops near the end of the Civil War and was used as Union headquarters.

The property of George Washington's step great granddaughter was turned into a cemetery for the Union dead in June 1864 to both bury their dead and in order to prevent General Lee's family from ever returning home. It became a national cemetery in 1883. Arlington National Cemetery is also the final resting place of 5,000 unknown soldiers from this nation's many wars.

About three million people visit Arlington National Cemetery each year to see the simple white marble headstones lined up in perfect row upon row. Beneath each unassuming headstone lays men and women from every war and conflict. At Arlington rank, title, or social status means nothing. Neither does their race, religion or politics. Nothing speaks "equality" like death. But once many were famous; people like Audie Murphy, Lee Marvin, Thurgood Marshall, Robert "Bobby" Kennedy, President John F Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Medgar Evers, Lt. Colonel Virgil "Guss" Grissom, Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, and Ira Hayes.

 Yet, for every name you might recognize, there are thousands upon thousands of everyday men and women who were far from ordinary. Arlington National Cemetery is also the location of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (also known as the Tomb of the Unknowns), a tribute to the dead of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, which was originally dedicated in 1922.

Did you know that Memorial Day was first commemorated 1861 in Warrington, Virginia to honor the Confederate dead?  In 1862, the women in Savannah, Georgia followed suit in honor of their Confederate dead. In 1863, this was extended to include all those who had died at Gettysburg. 

Later, after the Civil War had come to an end, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which had evolved from the Ladies Memorial Association, established chapters throughout the South in which to honor and remember their war dead. This was known as "Remembrance Day", though  a few states called decided to call it "Memorial Day".

In 1868, the practice which had started at Gettysburg, was increasingly adopted throughout all the Northern states. In July 1913, surviving members of the North and South gathered again in Gettysburg. This wasn't the time to fight, but to remember and honor those who had died in what was the bloodiest war in American History; a war which claimed over 500,000 lives. By contrast, World War II costs 405,399 US lives while Vietnam claimed 90,220. Compare that to Afghanistan, our longest military conflict at 20 years, which has seen a loss of 2,305 service personnel.

Thus, what had started off as a day to remember the Confederate war dead, had become the public act of remembering all of our nation's war dead. Although generally known as "Declaration Day" for all the flowers, ribbons, and banners starting around 1882, people gradually returned to the name, "Memorial Day", which had become the most common by the end of World War II. So, in 1967, the "Day of Remembrance" and "Declaration Day" were officially changed to "Memorial Day".

In addition to remembering all those who sacrificed their lives for this country, let's also not forget that we lose, on average, 20 veterans a day to suicide, often as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), service connected injuries (especially among post active duty disabled veterans). That's about one suicide every hour of every day. Most are between 55 and 74 years of age. The states with the highest rates of suicide are Texas and Florida.

 Some find they are unable to cope with the memories and nightmares of war, or from their injuries and the constant pain. Many are divorced, or struggled to hold on to a job. Some turn to drugs or alcohol.  There are approximately 180,000 veterans now serving time in prison or jail. Ultimately, they see no way out but to take their own lives.

We also need to remember that on any given night there are an estimated 40,000 homeless veterans living on the street. Homeless veterans make up just under 10% of all homelessness. 57% are white while 26% were black. 85% are listed as non-Hispanic. The rest are multiracial. Approximately 89.5% are men. The states with highest number of homeless veterans are California, Florida, Texas, and New York, but every state and nearly every community has homeless veterans or those with temporary shelter.

My generation, the Babyboomers, has witnessed the passing of the last veterans from the Spanish-American War, World War I, and with an average of 245 World War II veterans dying each day, we'll likely to see them last of them pass by 2043 according to VA statistics. Veterans of the Korean War aren't far behind.

 We are also the Children of the Cold War.  We witnessed the assassination of the Kennedy Brothers and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, the Watts Riots, the anti-War Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as the landing on the moon. Many of us fought in jungles of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the Tonkin Gulf, while others were Freedom Riders or marched in streets to fight another war. Some burned draft cards. Some burned bras, while some burned churches.

 Some of our parents recall the Great Depression and witnessed the lost of the last veterans of the Civil War. Many may even remember their fathers, uncles, or perhaps older brothers going off to war in the Pacific or Europe or their mothers working long grueling hours in factories to keep the country going and their family together. Thank you to all those faceless "Rosies" who are still here and who have passed. Meanwhile, our parents, while still children, would gather scrap or do whatever they could to help out.  We were all in it together.

 We, as a People in this still young nation, have witnessed and endured much. We owe much to those who sacrificed their hopes, their dreams, and their tomorrows for our sake and that of our children and their children. Memorial Day should be a day where we come together not just with family or friends, but also as a nation to remember those who gave everything for this nation and our freedoms; freedoms which are now under attack from many corners both outside and inside this great country of ours. We should also remember those who are still fighting their own personal wars---the homeless veteran, those who suffer daily with their injuries, and those who battling their own demons.

 Lastly, as I do on each Memorial Day, I'll end with a very special poem, "In Flanders Field", which was written in 1915 by Canadian Lt. Colonel John McCrae, which was inspired by his experiences during the Second Battle of Ypres during World War I. The battle lasted from April 22 through May 25th. During that battle, chlorine gas, a deadly airborne poison, was first introduced by the Germans to break the deadlock being fought in the stench of the trenches. That single battle claimed the lives of over 112,156 young men (their average age was just 19), although we will never be know the exact number, but if we did, it would no doubt be much higher.

John McCrea volunteered to serve as a gunner and medical officer for an artillery unit. Following the battle, which left many of the local towns and villages in smoldering ruins, McCrea was stunned one early morning by how quickly the crimson red poppies had bloomed on freshly covered graves and the eerie silence. I suspect there's a good deal of truth in it since he had just personally bury a close friend, Alexis Helmer, who had been killed on May 2nd. The poem, written then following day, was originally published in 1919. So, without further ado, here is "In Flanders Fields",

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Report: Veteran SuicideRates By State


United States Military Veteran Suicide

When Will the U.S. Lose Its Last WWII Veterans?

How many Americans have died in U.S. wars?

From Enlisted to Incarcerated: Why Some Veterans End UpBehind Bars


Mark said...

Your best article yet. Very good.

Barbara said...

Thank you.