On the last Monday in the month of May our country celebrates Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those who died while serving in the armed forces. For many, perhaps too many, this day marks nothing more than the start of summer, celebrated with a day off from school or work. Stores will stock up on barbecue items, discount beach chairs and gas grills, and vacation destinations will ready themselves for the onslaught of tourists. With the frantic pace of life and what seems to be a growing divide between those who have served and their families and those who have not, perhaps we have lost the meaning of this day.
Freedom is not free. It must be defended and so as we enjoy the relative safety of our communities and travel without worry to destinations of our choosing we must always remember these freedoms come with a cost. This cost is represented by the over 400,000 service members buried at Arlington National Cemetery and countless others at military cemeteries across our country. Each gravesite which memorializes a single servicemember also represents countless families and friends left behind. The cost is represented by the videos, images, books and monuments like the September 11th Memorial which should serve as reminders of the price and fragility of freedom.
I visited New York City on Memorial Day Weekend with my family several years ago and we had the opportunity to visit the site of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. It was still under construction but we were able to walk the hallowed grounds, view images, videos and hear audio recordings from family members. It was tough. We all wept and for a moment wondered why we would put ourselves through this. As we made our way through the memorial and consoled each other, I reminded my sons that this was supposed to hurt. “Lest we forget” I said. While I knew the visit would be sad, I had not expected this level of pain. Yet as we composed ourselves, I was hopeful that this pain would be seared into our memories, that we would always remember the cost of freedom and honor the sacrifice of those who defended it and their families. General Robert E. Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” He said this perhaps to remind others of the true horrors of war in hopes that they would always remember. This statement rewritten for Memorial Day might sound like this; “it is well that remembering the fallen on this day should hurt, lest we forget.”
So, should we shelve our plans for the weekend, park the boat or camper and send regrets to family members? Absolutely not, however each of us can and should pause in commemoration for the fallen. We should recall the horrors of September 11th and the painful images of war. Remembering reminds us of freedom’s great cost. Remembering causes each of us to renew our commitment to those who stand ready to defend our freedoms. Remembering makes each of us more vigilant, more willing to give of ourselves or our loved ones to our nation’s defense so that we can continue to enjoy future Memorial Days as we will this one, relaxing and reconnecting with those we love.
I don’t always make it to a cemetery or monument each Memorial Day. I visit them when I can throughout the year. And yes, I will certainly do my share of relaxing this weekend with those I love. But I will pause in remembrance as I do each morning while making coffee in my own strange personal ritual of remembering the fallen soldiers I served with and commanded in combat. Whatever remembrance you choose, let the pain return like I do when I think about that visit to New York. Never forget the fallen, for they paid the ultimate sacrifice. Remember, it’s supposed to hurt.