Let’s just start this column with this: Memorial Day is not a celebration.
It is a remembrance. It is a day of reflection and appreciation. It is a day for humility and awe and reverence. It is a day of gratitude, both for all that we do have in this wacky experiment of a nation, and for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in securing or safeguarding our way of life. We remember, because we honor.
According to statistics published by Military.com, there have been 1,185,596 American service members killed in conflicts around the globe since 1775. Let that number roll around in your mind for a moment.
Pretty hard number to stomach, isn’t it?
One should be hard enough to stomach. One life, given in service of nation so that others might live free, is one life that should be celebrated in the annals of our nation’s history, and spoken of in reverence by all who follow. That one life caused that individual’s brothers- or sisters-in-arms to become heartsick at the loss. That one life impacted mothers and fathers and children and siblings and friends. That one life, in most cases, is one told from one generation to the next for his or her family, often lionized as a source of pride that a family member gave his or her life for country.
Each of their stories were different. Some died in a hail of gunfire in a traditional battle environment. Some died in accidents while deployed, their lives snuffed short because of the inherent dangers that exist in a war or training zone. Some took friendly fire. Some were randomly taken from this mortal earth simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and an improvised explosive device or cannonballs called their number. All died too soon. All died for an ideal.
And though Memorial Day has largely become synonymous with cookouts and bathing suits and the launch of a new summer season, its genesis is still worth taking stock of and paying homage. It’s important that we pay tribute to those who paid the ultimate price.
Look, I’m not trying to romanticize war or death or violence. In fact, I’m trying to do just the opposite. War is awful. Largely declared by parties who will never step foot on the field of battle, and paid in blood by people who never did anything to start the carnage in the first place, war is confusing and terrifying and loud and life-changing. We send people to fight at the age of 18 or 19 or 23, and they still often wake up in cold sweats at 25 or 50 or 90. It doesn’t just go away when the leaders sign a piece of paper saying they now intend to get along or orders send someone home.
It stays. It lingers. It grows into something different that just can’t be shared with loved ones because, well, who wants to inflict something that ridiculously horrible upon their loved ones?
And that is for the people who do make it home. They also often swim in a pool of guilt over those who weren’t so fortunate to see their time in uniform end. We were told — often, mind you — that nobody gets out of this world alive, it’s only a matter of when and how, and that there is no better “how” than by leaving this existence in defense of one’s nation.
So when we talk about those who gave their lives for country — those 1,185,596 human beings — we are talking about people who paid the ultimate price in the ultimate way. For many veterans, heroes don’t come in the form of Marvel or athletes or politicians. No, those heroes are the ones that went “all in.” That left this world doing something much grander than just living their own lives.
It’s why Memorial Day matters to veterans, and, really, why it should matter to all of us.
It’s why many veterans get disgusted when they see people “pay respect” to the country by wearing representations of the flag as bathing suits. That flag has shrouded the caskets of hundreds of thousands of heroes who never got the chance to steal one more hug from a loved one, and now people have to look at that same flag on people’s posteriors at the beach?
I had a veteran more experienced in life than myself stop by the office last week just to talk to me about this. He had a copy of the flag code in his hand as he passionately spoke, and while I recognize that these bathing suits aren’t made of actual flags (so not technically covered under flag code), I shared in his frustration.
Sure, the flag is a piece of cloth. I get it. I also get that 99 times out of 100 it is being worn with patriotic pride. But, as we’ve all seen in abundance since the entire Colin Kaepernick situation first took hold of our attention, it represents much more than that to a great number of people. It is not just a logo next to someone on an Olympics medal stand, or something that goes to half-mast when a luminary departs. It is home.
It represents the people you left behind while deployed somewhere else. It represents the nation you serve when you take your oath. It represents the playing of “Reveille” and “Retreat.” And, ultimately, it represents the playing of “Taps” as we bid farewell to our brothers and sisters. Our fallen brothers and sisters. Our heroes.
Look, because of when it falls, Memorial Day is truly the kick-off to the summer season. It does mean open pools and lifeguards on giant chairs and hot dogs and crabs and cold beers with family and friends — all of these wonderful and amazing things.
But take a moment to remember those who are no longer here. Those who took up arms to protect the kind of lifestyle we so openly embrace at the end of each May. They did it so Americans could have these things. They did it so America can prosper and grow.
Let’s remember them. Let’s remember the 1,185,596.