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The Real Meaning of Memorial Day

There is a foolproof way to tell when Memorial Day approaches every year: Car dealerships and mattress stores flood the airwaves advertising their Memorial Day discounts; also, grocery stores start running low on hot dog buns and charcoal and seasonal allergies are in full swing.

For millions of Americans, Memorial Day signals the start of the summer season… And nothing more.

As a young infantryman, this thought used to bother me: Don’t these people know what’s been lost? Don’t they know what we’ve had to give up for their cookouts and golf?

But today, as a more mature person, it occurs to me that a celebration is exactly what our comrades would have wanted their fellow Americans to have. The heroes that I served with wouldn’t want another wreath-laying ceremony. Sure, they would certainly want to be remembered, but why not celebrate everything America is about: Our shared value system, our fierce desire for individual freedom, and, of course, hamburgers on the grill.

In the United States, Memorial Day is a federal holiday for honoring and mourning the military personnel who have died in the performance of their military duties.

But for many veterans, Memorial Day takes on a different meaning entirely. For us, the day can be summed up with a single word: Sacrifice.

Number of military fatalities in all major wars involving the United States from 1775 to 2021

Graph courtesy Statista. Used with permission.

Approximately 1.3 million Americans have given their lives in exchange for something. American lives were lost during the creation of the very nation itself.

Many more lives were sacrificed to keep the Union together in one of our nation’s most perilous moments, the Civil War.

Other lives were given to prevent the spread of fascism, communism and terrorism.

American lives were also lost to protect smaller, more vulnerable countries from larger aggressors.

We Remember Peacetime Sacrifices as Well

However, wartime doesn’t have a monopoly on sacrifice. Many servicemembers have given their lives in training accidents, aircraft malfunctions, maintenance and travel to or from a duty posting.

Their sacrifice is just as meaningful. It was in the service of keeping the nation strong and its citizens safe.

On December 12, 1985, 248 infantrymen from the 101st Airborne Division were returning home from a peacekeeping deployment in the Sinai. After stopping to refuel in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, their chartered DC-8 jetliner crashed immediately after takeoff from ice on its wings.

All 248 soldiers and eight crew perished, making it the largest loss of life in a single day that the 101st Airborne Division has ever experienced.

In an Army Times article remembering the 30th anniversary of the crash, a spouse of one of the soldiers, Amy Gallo, asked, “How do you tell 248 family members their husbands are dead? I’ve never heard so many women yelling and screaming in my life.”

I remember running past the memorial at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, every morning for physical training. It was a reminder that you don’t have to see combat to sacrifice for this country.

US Army Lieutenant Colonel Sidney McMannis (Obscured) and Command Sergeant Major Raymond Rodriquez (Foreground) place a wreath on the memorial for Task Force 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division Soldiers. This took place during the Division Gander Memorial Ceremony on December 12th, 1999, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The Memorial commemorates the 248 soldiers lost in a plane crash at Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. Public Domain.

The Real Meaning of Memorial Day – Remember Their Sacrifice

Celebrating the start of summer is the most American way to enjoy this Memorial Day. After all, the country is slowly emerging from the global coronavirus pandemic. After 13 dark months, we finally have something to feel good about: a gradual return to normal.

All that I ask of you is to take a moment this Memorial Day weekend to whisper a word of thanks or pause for a moment of silence for the men and women who paid the ultimate price on our behalf.

To see how Memorial Day originated as “Decoration Day” immediately after the Civil War, check out this awesome history site US Memorial Day.org.

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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