A MATTER OF OPINION: Remembering not to forget

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By Robin Bass

Another Memorial Day has come and gone.

It took a while, but gas grills throughout America are finally cooling down after searing all those burgers and hotdogs. Most of the lawn chairs have been put back in the garage, but someone forgot to take down their volleyball net a few streets away. It stands in the back yard as monument to the fun that was had by all.

Since Congress designated the last Monday in May as Memorial Day in 1971, Americans have been using this annual extended weekend as a time to celebrate the unofficial start of summer. It is, after all, when many swimming pools and water parks open for business. In and around Spencer County, Memorial Day marks the beginning of boating season. Weekend lake-lovers were seen making their pilgrimage toward the nearest boat ramp – returning home later with tired smiles and sunburned noses.

For many who often toil 40 hours a week or more, Memorial Day offers a welcome respite – a chance to finally get outside of the office and soak up some sun. It has become the designated weekend for barbecues, family reunions and the Indy 500.

For a decade now, there has been a movement to change the way Americans celebrate Memorial Day. Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) have expressed their desire to observe the holiday on May 30 no matter what day of the week it falls on. Their belief is that ever since the federal government created the three-day weekend, it has diminished the meaning of the day and has contributed to the public’s nonchalant observance. To understand where the VFW is coming from, one has to have some knowledge of why the holiday was created.

Following the Civil War, survivors were forced to deal with the loss of more than 600,000 soldiers. At first, cities organized their own memorial services. Southern cities mourned Confederate soldiers. Northern cities wept over Union graves. Three years later, the country held its first official recognition of Memorial Day in Arlington Cemetery by placing flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers. The date of that first Memorial Day was May 30, 1868. Over time, the observance has come to include all American soldiers who lost their lives while serving this country at war.

Spencer County held its own Memorial Day service last Sunday at the Valley Cemetery chapel. It was a patriotic event. Participants proudly recited the pledge of allegiance and then sang several hearty verses of “America the Beautiful”. What was painfully obvious, however, was the lack of anyone under the age of 40. In fact, it would be safe to say that no one born since 1971 made an effort to show up. Ironically, that is the same year that Memorial Day was established as part of a three-day weekend.

Could it be that an entire generation (that grew up celebrating Memorial Day with barbecues, family reunions and the Indy 500) was never taught the meaning of the day? Perhaps in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, America just wanted to heal. Firing up the charcoal and playing a game of croquet was probably preferred over mourning service men and women who died in a war that so many questioned.

Jump forward four decades and we find America involved in conflicts across the globe, but primarily serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Every week there is yet another news story about two, eight, or more U.S. soldiers who have died while serving their country overseas. Since September 2001, more than 5,600 have paid the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives for their country. Sure there are those at home that question and even protest these wars, but America has seemed to learn her lesson when it comes to showing respect for returning soldiers.

But again the question must be asked. What about those that returned in a flag-draped coffin? And all those that died before them so that Americans at home can barbecue in peace? It is not surprising that Memorial Day is seen as a chance to squeeze every drop of enjoyment the world can offer – but remember, it was an American soldier who made that freedom possible.