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Memorial Day: Time for Reflection, Rumination, and Deep Thoughts

Here in south-central Texas the annual summer sweat-fest is nearly upon us. Heat and humidity always remind me of similar conditions endured during the years I spent in Vietnam. Start down that road as I generally do around Memorial Day and it inevitably leads me to remembering friends who never made it home to appreciate life in this great nation that called on them to serve and sacrifice. Those guys—like millions of others who died in our nation’s wars before and after them—signed that big blank check that said pay to the people of the United States any amount up to and including my life. They knew the odds before they ante’d up to play the deadly game of war in one dingy battlefield or another around the world.

And it reminds me of the first time I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and its central element, mostly known simply as The Wall. I’ve thought a lot about that visit. Here’s what I’ve learned. For those of us who served in Vietnam, and survived, visiting this memorial carries a tremendous emotional impact. And that impact goes well beyond just remembering. It’s more than simply reliving part of our past, reflecting a bit on a misspent youth, whispering a prayer for someone we knew, or whispering a prayer for all the ones we didn’t know, but who shared an ordeal in a long, bloody, and brutal war.

I think I know why this memorial has such an impact, and frankly it has a lot to do with The Wall’s polished marble surface. As we stand there, reading the names of our honored dead, those of us who served and survived hear a whisper in the air, and that whisper says, “It could have been me.” And if we’re grieving for someone that we knew and loved personally when he was killed, that whisper sometimes says, “It should have been me.”

There’s mystic power in that polished, black surface that is so striking and so unique among all of America’s war memorials. We see our reflection and it’s as if we were there again in Vietnam. It’s as though we’re standing once again in ranks with our honored dead, as if we’re humping the boonies in the badlands just as we did with them so long ago. We see ourselves once again marching with them in a tight, tough outfit, heading toward the inevitable last muster at the final firebase.

General John Logan must have been feeling something similar back in 1868 when he decided his nation had forgotten the fallen on both sides of the bloody Civil War. As national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Civil War veterans, he issued a proclamation that eventually led to declaration of a day of remembrance for all our war dead. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s a thumbnail sketch of how we wound up with a red-letter day on our national calendar which was supposed to provide a break from everyday chores and make time to honor those who made the supreme sacrifice in service to our nation.

And when I think of the Civil War, and those who fought and died in it, I reflect on President Abraham Lincoln and the words he said at Gettysburg in 1863. For me, Lincoln’s words are the perfect punctuation for any and all Memorial Days. He said that the honored dead “gave the last full measure of devotion.” And so did every one of the veterans we should be remembering each Memorial Day. We must never forget that. And we must never forget what else Lincoln said when he asked the nation to “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Those are high ideals. They are also a kind common denominator among those who served then and who serve the nation now. We know from the moment we raise our hand to enlist in service to American that we might be faced with a situation in which it’s necessary that we die. We need to remember that on Memorial Day and every day that we draw breath in this greatest nation on earth. America survives and thrives because of the service and sacrifice of our veterans.

You don’t have to pass on the barbecue, cancel the beer bust or even pause for long in whatever activities you’ve got planned for Memorial Day. Just find some time – and take it – to say thanks in your own way to the men and women who died to preserve a way of life that is—regardless of your personal or professional problems right now—better than anywhere else on earth. It is not – and should never be – about shallow hero worship. It’s a chance to reflect and refine our own values, to ignore mundane concerns, to admire what’s beautiful and grand in the character and conduct of our war dead.

Memorial Day is a chance to make a little room in a hectic schedule, to take a moment to contemplate those men and women down through the ages since America was born in war and hardship, who so loved this nation and its promise that they made the ultimate sacrifice. If you really want to do it right, visit a national veterans’ cemetery and look out over the long, sad rows of pristine white markers. That should bring it all home to you in a tearful hurry. Our war dead deserve so much more, but I’m confident that just that moment of silent remembrance or a muttered thanks would suit them all just fine. And it’s so little to ask for those who gave us all so much.

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