Those who serve
Sacrifice, remembrance, and the true meaning of Memorial Day
For most of us, Memorial Day is a welcome day off from work as spring shifts to summer. Maybe we use the time to work on home improvement projects or visit family and friends, often with a cookout nearby.
Although historians debate the holiday’s origin , the reason for its importance has never changed: to call attention and pay respect to those who have given their lives in the service of their country as a member of the armed forces.
The first federal day of recognition was made shortly after the Civil War by John A. Logan in 1868, then Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (a union-aligned fraternal organization). He organized a “Decoration Day” that called for a national observance honoring all those who fell in service to the Union to take place each May 30. This day of remembrance was to mirror numerous local holidays held throughout former Confederate states for their southern soldiers who died in combat. The first national Decoration Day was held on May 30, 1868 and saw 183 cemeteries across 27 states participate in adorning graves of the fallen with flags and flowers.
Waterloo, New York, was recognized as the first northern city to hold a recognition day for Service Members and was declared by President Lyndon Johnson a century after its first holiday as the birthplace of “Memorial Day.” This Presidential proclamation officially replaced Decoration Day as the name of the nationally recognized holiday in all federal matters. On that first occasion in Waterloo in 1866, businesses were closed, and members of the community went to the local cemetery to decorate the graves of those warriors that fell during the Civil War. From 1966 onward, the new federal holiday would likewise see to the closure of all businesses for the purpose of recognizing those who have fallen in combat regardless the conflict.
Each Memorial Day since has featured a federally mandated moment of silence in recognition of all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defending the United States in combat. This observance, which takes place at 3:00 p.m., is revered on military installations across the nation and in every federal cemetery containing the remains of combat casualties.
Memorial Day is distinct from Armed Forces Day and Veterans Day. Armed Forces Day began in 1949 and is celebrated on the third Saturday of each May (the conclusion of Armed Forces Week) intended to pay tribute to actively serving Service Members. Every year on November 11, the more renowned Veterans Day is celebrated to honor all those who served in the Armed Forces in the past.
As we approach Memorial Day, it’s important to remember that for every fallen Service Member, there is a family which shares in that ultimate sacrifice for our nation. These families have earned the distinction of being called Gold Star Families, but where did that term and its tradition begin?
During World War I, families of those serving in the US armed forces flew service flags – standard white flags bordered in red with a dark blue star for each family member in service. At some point, those who lost loved ones began to change the dark blue stars to gold ones to let others know of their family’s sacrifice.
In 1918, President Wilson decreed that those mothers, wives, and sisters who experienced the combat loss of a loved one should no longer wear dark mourning clothes, but instead adorn their everyday clothing with a black arm band with a gold star for each loved one who died while in service.
The change in service flag practice coupled with the gold star armband statute drew national attention to those families dealing with wartime losses. These same Gold Star wives and mothers went national with a non-profit charter in 1928, and as support for their organization grew so did the recognition of their families’ service to the country.
In 1936, President Roosevelt established National Gold Star Mother’s Day, which is still observed on the last Sunday in September each year. It is now known as Gold Star Mother’s and Family Day as the Gold Star recognition expanded from mothers and wives to its current form where all family members are recognized.
In 1947, the Department of Defense (DoD) officially began a recognition program and created the Gold Star Lapel Pin, which features a gold star on a purple circular background to be worn by immediate family members of Service Members killed in combat. In 1973, the DoD created a Next of Kin Deceased Personnel Lapel Pin for family members of those who died in service other than combat. Currently, DoD continues to present both these lapel pins to spouses, parents, and children of fallen members of the military.
Today there is broad recognition for Gold Star Families and Gold Star Spouses. Through recognition ceremonies, scholarship opportunities, and resource provisions (e.g., a specialized Gold Star Military ID Card), each branch of the military works to ensure that families of the fallen never feel abandoned or left alone. They are forever part of an extended family, a community that will always be there for support. As the United Service Organizations (USO) often states, the recognition helps ensure the bond remains because, “Life goes on, but being a Gold Star Family is forever.”
This Memorial Day, take a moment to remember the reason for the holiday and pay respect to the men and women who have given their lives, and their families, so that we might celebrate together.