I wasn’t always aware of the purpose of Memorial Day. For a long time it was simply a holiday on which my mother would tell me I was born. When I was in junior high and high school it was another parade opportunity for marching band. But through opportunities like Charlotte High School’s Vietnam Round Table, or the occasional encounters with men from my own generation who returned from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, I came at least to grasp some of the weight to the Monday I now get off from work.
My family was fortunate. Both of my grandfathers returned home safely from duty in WWII, and neither had to fight in Korea. My father and his siblings were too young to be sent to Vietnam in the 60’s and 70’s, and none were military men during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. My brother and our close cousins were too young or not in the military during those periods.
Despite our patriotism, we consider it fortunate to not be in the military serving, or indeed dying, for country. But many families with brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, uncles and grandfathers in the military do consider themselves fortunate. “All of my brothers are military men,” I’ve heard some friends say. “The military is a family tradition,” I’ve heard from others. These are very often statements of deep pride and honor. I stand in awe of such families, and even more so of the family members they refer to. All I can think in such conversations is, “I’m just glad my dad was home and alive.”
For many families, however, the truth, honor, and pride is much more brutal. Some fathers and brothers and uncles didn’t come home in either soul or body. Our country’s freedom is littered in the dust and bones of foreign lands, carved into being and protected on a battlefield by men and women who went willingly to serve. What a beautiful tragedy it is to know a loved one gave their life so that ours may be so comfortable.
I think now about the few friends I have who have willingly gone into the various branches of the military. I still count myself fortunate that there are few. I want my friends at my wedding, and I want to be at theirs. I want to live in neighborhoods together, be part of the band boosters and small groups, and go on camping trips with our families. I don’t live constantly worrying about my friends or family members not returning home for these things. Then I remember the people who do live in that reality, who may someday be told unexpectedly that their best friend, sibling, or parent won’t be coming home from duty. I can’t know what that’s like, no matter how many museums I go to, or books I read.
So often we waste our freedom on trivial things. We waste it on hours watching Netflix, comparing ourselves to others and wallowing in the things we don’t have, bickering about politics or engaging in social media debates, or striving to get more money. I’m guilty of all these things and more. Brave men and women die not only to protect our rights to freedom of speech, and worship, and fair trials, but also for our rights the trivial, ephemeral things.
There is truly no way to express the gratitude owed to those who serve and die and in military duty, especially after acknowledging that we don’t always use our privileges and rights well. Parades, services, monuments, and flags only go so far. By all means, go participate in those times set aside to collectively recognize and honor the great sacrifices. That’s what that Monday off is for. But just as valuable is the internal recognition and the personal reflection of those brave, larger than life men and women who go and lay down their lives for home and country. Like a prayer or meditation, take time this Memorial Day just to remember those who gave it up so we could have it.