Taking a break from my usual nutrition teachings, I felt passionate to write about one of my favorite national days of recognition (I really don’t like to refer to Memorial Day as a “holiday,” confusing it as a “celebration”), and one day that seems to sadly, be losing its meaning in our country today. While millions of people will have an extra day off from work and school, replete with backyard BBQ bashes, pool parties, and maybe a mini-vacation somewhere, I want to take a moment to thank the countless military, government agencies (FBI, CIA, State Department) AND public service members of the police and fire fighters of this nation who lost their lives in the line of duty. Memorial Day to me exists every day – not just one of the few days out of the year when businesses and schools have the day off, the American flag gets hung up, and we are to feel patriotic. While some may still classify it as a “national day of celebration” – the only celebration that really should be honored are the lives and legacies of the millions of men and women who gave everything to their country and its people.
Growing up as a child, I had many military influences in my life – my father was drafted during the Vietnam War and spent several years in the Army; my paternal grandfather AND grandmother were both Marines during World War II (and my grandmother remains the proudest female WWII vet to this day); my maternal grandfather served during WWII in Naval Aviation, my dad’s brother made a career in the Air Force, my other uncles were drafted during Vietnam, and my favorite teacher of all time – my fifth grade teacher Mr. Giambattista – was a Marine during WWII. Therefore, Memorial Day was one of the most important “holidays” when I was growing up. Our town had a parade, the town stopped all other activities and everyone had the day off to respect and honor those who were lost fighting for our country. We had lessons in school about the meaning behind Memorial Day and why it was important as Americans to honor the fallen. Flags were strewn about town, and my dad and I had our ritual of proudly hanging our American flag outside with special care (as we did every day). My grandparents wore their WWII uniform hats and memorabilia and everyone dressed in red, white, and blue. I always recall having such a sense of pride, patriotism, and a sadness for those who were lost. As a child, I would look at the pictures of the many faces of heroes who gave their life, ranging from the Revolutionary War to the current war at the time – the Gulf War; I wondered what kind of lives these men and women led prior. I thought to myself, “What made these people want to sign up to fight a war? Why would people want to be a cop or special agent to find and fight the bad guys?! Why would they do that?!?!” My dad, grandparents, and Mr. Giambattista often explained that many people didn’t necessarily even want to sign up to fight wars or become part of any danger, that in many cases they were drafted, but they still fought anyway – out of duty to their nation. I understand that even today, there is debate about this concept, which I understand. Yet, most people volunteer to fill the role of protector of our great nation, no matter what the role may be. As I got older, the sense of wanting to “serve my country” remained strong, and I even wanted to attend the US Naval Academy, but could not apply due to a shoulder injury. Through the years, I became friends with many wonderful young men and women who graduated the service academies or served in the military, government agencies, police department, or fire department. It was through the selfless actions of these individuals that I gained a true appreciation for what it means to “serve one’s country” – from the many mentally and physically tedious challenges to long deployments or assignments away from home, one sacrifices much out of an ordinary life to serve his or her country.
Some of the most moving experiences I have had was when I lived in Arlington, VA, and was able to partake in Memorial Day “celebrations” there, including Arlington National Cemetery. I still recall the unexplainable feeling I would get when I would first hear the Patriot Guard on their hundreds of motorcycles roar and rumble through our nation’s capital after riding for hundreds, and even thousands of miles with an American flag flying behind almost every bike to pay tribute to and bring attention to fallen heroes of our nation. It looks like a moving piece of art, to be honest. Many of these individuals are veterans themselves and attend countless funerals and services of those fallen. I would make it a point to go to the memorials – Vietnam War, World War II, Korean War…. To pay tribute to what seems like an endless list of names engraved on the beautiful stone structures. To observe someone kneeling or bowing down over a particular name, crying, hoping that name would somehow manifest back into a living human being, is something to see. I would also go on many runs past Arlington National Cemetery throughout the year – and each time, I will admit, I would just start tearing up. I couldn’t help running past the endless rows of white grave markers – like a sea of tiny white stones – and not be the most humbled I have ever been in my life. You really reflect upon what it means to have “character” when you think of the countless selfless acts of heroism that wound up creating this cemetery as the final resting place for a majority of those laid to rest. Here I was able to enjoy a run by myself on two, healthy legs in a beautiful city that serves as the capital of a free and prosperous country, while I know in other places of the world, this would not be a possibility for me. Those grave markers were a stark reminder of each soul that lost his or her life on behalf of my ability to take that run as a free individual with basic human rights. It also saddened me that there are “citizens” of this country who completely take for granted the ultimate sacrifices those have made for our freedoms and advancements as a nation. This makes me even more grateful for the influences I had in my life as a child to help me learn about what makes Memorial Day so special. As a teacher, I had children in my classroom who did not have the slightest clue as to what Memorial Day was; they just thought it was a national holiday to have a good “memory” of the U.S. As each year passed, more and more time was needed to be spent on “important” curriculum materials, and I found some teachers never even “had time” to teach about Memorial Day – by the time Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend rolled around, some students were leaving school without even understanding why they were having no school on Monday. It made me sad that some of these children wouldn’t even have the understanding of why this national holiday exists.
With my husband as an active duty military member and a sister as an active duty police officer and SWAT team member, each Memorial Day has more and more meaning, as we unfortunately have more heroes that lost their lives. We have lost numerous friends throughout the past several years – young, healthy, brilliant and brave men and women who fearlessly did their job on a daily basis – and loved their job protecting the citizens of America, and even other parts of the world. As a child, I never thought about paying respects to those I knew on Memorial Day when I got older; as a child, you think everyone you know and love is invincible – protected from harm. I think what makes these true feelings of security is the fact that there are heroes out there to fill this role of protection and keeping us safe.
Letting our children know on a daily basis that these heroes exist and that it takes a very special person to fill those shoes is some of the greatest respect and honor we can pay to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Other things you can do on Memorial Day to pay respect is check your local VFW Hall to volunteer – spend time helping to set up flags, buy flags, or fold up flags (or even just any help that the VFW members could use); we love displaying our American flag daily, but love even more lining the sidewalk and walkway with small American flags, perhaps one for each special person you want to remember and honor. We used to buy a bunch of small American flags and place them on the grave markers of fallen heroes in our local cemetery. As a teacher, I would save articles or notifications of any soldiers, police officers, fire fighters, or government agent who lost his or her life that year, and I would have students do a small memorial and we would highlight these individuals, simply so these students could have a glimpse into the life these heroes led. It’s even a nice idea to write a letter to a surviving family member of a fallen hero or have pictures drawn; just letting those left behind know that their loved one is regarded as a hero means the world and helps heal the wounds of loss.
Several friends have died over the years, and we donate what we can to the memorial funds or organizations that have been set up in their honor. Many of these groups do incredible work for the families and children left behind of fallen soldiers or service personnel; these groups also work tirelessly to provide assistance for those who are hurt in the line of duty. What’s great about these organizations is you don’t even need to donate money – many times, you can seek volunteer roles or see if there are any functions that you could help with. Many times, there will be races held in honor of fallen heroes and you can help out at those or just participate to show your support.
No matter how you spend your Memorial Day, never forget why Memorial Day was established. We have so much to be thankful and grateful for here in America, and to fully understand that what we have today comes at a steep price. Whether you attend a parade, have a great BBQ, wave an American flag or not, just try and stop and take a moment to honor those who are not with us and reflect on the heroes who have and continue to put their life in harm’s way to keep us safe.
Here is a list of some great websites that support programs and projects for the fallen:
http://carrytheload.org/splash/ (an awesome program that really relays the meaning of Memorial Day)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mDcotcGRCo (he was a personal friend of mine)
http://911heroesrun.com/ (there are many runs held throughout the US; check to see if there is one near you)
Here are some great Memorial Day websites and ideas:
1. Visit a United States National Cemetery – There are 146 national cemeteries in the United States. Some cemeteries will hold “decoration days” on Sunday before Memorial Day where volunteers place an American flag on each grave. Even more personally meaningful is to visit and decorate the grave of a family member who died while serving our country.
2. Fly the American Flag – If you have an American flag, fly it at half mast. If you do not have an American flag, have your children make one. Depending on the age of your child, a flag can be made from construction paper, popsicle sticks, or even burlap and acrylic paint. Creating an American flag naturally leads to learning about the symbolism of the flag’s colors, as well as the number of stars and stripes.
3. Pause in Memory – The National Moment of Remembrance established by Congress in 2000 asks all Americans to pause for 1 minute at 3 PM (local time) “as an act of national unity in which all Americans, alone or with family and friends, honor those who died in service to the United States.” Read President Clinton’s statement on signing the act.
4. Celebrate with Music – Many communities have festivals, parades, and various ways to participate in, or listen to, traditional Memorial Day music. Songs like “America the Beautiful”, “Anchors Aweigh”, “My Country ’tis of Thee”, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, and of course, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” If you know of a place you can wrap up the day with a bugler playing Taps, consider it to be an extremely moving moment. You can explain to your children how Taps is normally played at funerals as a memorial hymn.
5. Watch a Video or Documentary – The History Channel offers a number of videos fitting for Memorial Day. Watch and discuss some of the famous battles in our nation’s history. Also, check The Military Channel’s guide for shows playing over the weekend.
Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Health and Nutrition Coach and Owner/Founder of Empower Health Coaching of Exponential Health and Wellness, LLC: http://www.exponentialhealthandwellness.us