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FIRST-PERSON: Remember to remember

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP) — People look forward to Memorial Day for a variety of reasons. It often marks the beginning of summer. For some, it’s a nice long holiday weekend. For others, it’s a special time to honor their friends who died in war.

For “Gold Star Families,” it is a time to reflect again on the ultimate sacrifice paid by their loved one(s). When a Gold Star tribute is rendered at the grave site for a person who has died in military service to our country, an American flag is folded and presented — accompanied by the words: “On behalf of a grateful nation … ”

Implied in that special moment, with eyes filled with tears and hearts wrenched with pain, is an expectation that we — as individuals and as a community, a nation and a people — will not forget the incredible sacrifice made to defend freedom here at home and support its spread across the globe.

In such a moment, philosophical and academic musings about freedom give way to the reality that the price of freedom is blood, sweat and tears: blood paid by those who died in the battle, sweat paid by those who served but live on, and tears paid by those who will love these decorated dead until their own last breath. And what do these devoted ones ask in return?

Only that we remember to remember.

Certainly, it is not too much to ask that we as fellow citizens set aside one day to remember those who have paid such a high price so that we can live free. Remembering sacrifice was one of the last directives Jesus gave His disciples before His own death, and He also taught them that same night: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Remembering and honoring sacrificial deaths was the intent behind the first “Dedication Day” in 1866 and again in May 1868, when Gen. John A. Logan called for a nationwide remembrance of America’s Civil War deaths. On May 30 that year, Gen. James Garfield gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, followed by 5,000 participants helping decorate the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers with flowers.

Again after World War I, people recognized the need to honor those killed in war. The special recognitions associated with this tribute spread throughout the country. In 1966, after the Korean War and during the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson designated Waterloo, N.Y., as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. However, the title is challenged by six other locations because the memorial efforts were so widespread by then.

Congress eventually declared Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971. Now the graves of many war dead are marked with flowers and small flags on Memorial Day.

As our nation has grown and become stronger, how is it that so many who reap freedom’s benefits have forgotten the blood, sweat and tears required of our ancestors?

Diplomacy has helped us avoid war. Advancements in strategy and technology have improved the odds of surviving in war. Thus, there are fewer families enduring the cost of freedom than in previous generations.

But though fewer Americans must endure it, losing a loved one in war is as painful as it has ever been. We must not fail to honor these deaths.

I am a grandson of a “Gold Star Spouse.” Growing up, I watched my grandmother cry many tears over my grandfather’s death in the Battle of Okinawa. His death left her to raise three small children alone. My mother and her siblings, now all in their 70s, still grieve over growing up without their father.

As a military service member, I have also knelt beside the gurney and prayed for some of our finest warriors as blood poured out on the ground and life vanished from their eyes. As a chaplain, I have stood at a graveside many times with loved ones who received our nation’s flag as a symbol of gratitude. I often found myself wondering if they believed the price of freedom was still worth it now that the expense was tallied to their personal accounts.

You cannot forget such moments! Words cannot suffice. I have become convinced that remembering may be the better remedy. Few loved ones who have paid such a price will forget that you remembered to remember.

So, on this Memorial Day with all the added challenges of COVID-19, take a walk or a slow jog through your community with an American flag in hand, and as you pass someone, offer the simple phrase: “Remember to remember!” Or while you are “social distancing” in the grocery store, at the park, or on the beach, just sound off with that phrase.

Hopefully, others will be prompted by a renewed realization of the day’s designation and might be thoughtful enough to respond with, “I remember!” If you get an inquisitive look, take a few moments to offer your perspective on the significance of Memorial Day and our duty as citizens to remember. The conversation might even lead to an opportunity to share the highest sacrificial death ever paid, for the greatest purpose.

    About the Author

  • Endel Lee