Have we forgotten the meaning of Memorial Day?

Americans take one day out of the year to remember its fallen and missing heroes — the men and women who gave their last full measure of devotion for their country and for freedom. Every Memorial Day, we take stock not just of what we’ve lost, and not just of what we’ve secured through their sacrifice, but also what we may be forgetting. Each Memorial Day seems to disappear a little further into a generic holiday, and CBS News reports that the families of the fallen and veterans’ groups are beginning to worry more and more that the meaning is getting lost:


Allison Jaslow heard it more than once as the long holiday weekend approached — a cheerful “Happy Memorial Day!” from oblivious well-wishers.

The former Army captain and Iraq War veteran had a ready reply, telling them, matter-of-factly, that she considered it a work weekend. Jaslow will be at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday to take part in the annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. She’ll then visit Section 60, the final resting place of many service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“You can see it in people’s faces that they’re a little horrified that they forget this is what the day’s about,” said Jaslow, 34, who wears a bracelet bearing the name of a fallen comrade. “Culturally, we’ve kind of lost sight of what the day’s supposed to mean.”

What’s the reason for the cultural ignorance? CBS also provides a pretty good answer:

“It’s a fun holiday for people: ‘Let’s party.’ It’s an extra day off from work,” said Carol Resh, 61, whose son, Army Capt. Mark Resh, was killed in Iraq a decade ago. “It’s not that they’re doing it out of malice. It just hasn’t affected them.”

Veterans groups say a growing military-civilian disconnect contributes to a feeling that Memorial Day has been overshadowed. More than 12 percent of the U.S. population served in the armed forces during World War II. That’s down to less than one-half of a percent today, guaranteeing more Americans aren’t personally acquainted with a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.


That fall in personal connections comes in large part from the ending of the draft more than forty years ago. World War II was as close to a total mobilization as this country has ever seen, with volunteer service and the draft combining to send a big percentage of able-bodied young men into uniform. The draft continued until nearly the end of the Vietnam War; the last draft took place in February 1972, and eleven months later the Department of Defense announced the end of drafts. Gerald Ford formally eliminated the draft in 1975, and the US transitioned to an all-volunteer military.

Overall, that has been beneficial to the US, and to the military. The enlistees are better motivated, and better able to complete their training. We no longer have the social unrest created by compulsory military service, nor the controversies over deferments and privilege. However, something has been lost in the cultural environment that tied us more to veterans and those who died in service to their country. And that loss gets felt most keenly by those who have already suffered loss.

That’s not to say that the meaning has been altogether lost, of course. CBS also has a remarkable feature today on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, and the care provided by the National Park Service for it. Visitors leave mementoes at the wall to honor those lost, and the NPS honors that by warehousing the mementoes. A new effort has begun to curate these gifts and to include them in a new educational center that will be built near the Wall:


Bain hopes putting the objects on display along with photos of the fallen will help veterans, families and the nation to heal.

“It will give visitors to the education center, and I think visitors to the wall, a bit more depth of that experience,” Bain said. “To not just read the names, but to see these faces and to understand that these were real people, real human beings who had lives that were cut short.”

They’re still raising money for the Vietnam War Education Center. The plan is to build it across the road and underground, so it won’t interfere with the visual experience of visiting the wall.

In addition to the thousands of objects that will be on display, they also hope to include photographs of every single person whose name is on the wall.

Perhaps that will help connect us to those who grieve on Memorial Day, and to those who preserved our nation and our freedom through the greatest sacrifice. May God bless all who gave their lives for that purpose, their families, and may we ever be worthy of their sacrifice.

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