Memorial Day: What’s to Celebrate?

26 May

How do You Celebrate Memorial Day?

That was a trick question.

Across the country, folks are firing up those backyard barbecue grills, stocking the beer coolers, brewing sweet tea, and hunting through the garage for the horseshoes and lawn chairs. Company’s a-comin’ and it’s sure to be a day of fellowship and relaxation.

Partiers and politicians alike will make mention in their toasts and speeches of “those who died in defense of this nation” as if it’s a public service announcement. Something to check off  on their “to-do” lists for the day.

But there are also people across the land who are hurting today, for whom this day intensifies the memories of loved ones who didn’t come home. A folded flag presentation. A stone marker in Arlington or any one of the nation’s 131 veteran’s cemeteries. An empty seat at the picnic table.

It’s a little different for me. The day brings back myriad interviews I’ve been honored to have conducted with men who fought and survived. Some were such great storytellers I can still envision what they saw in battle.

I once had a conversation with Haddys B. Hixon, a true Teufelshunde (Marine Corps Devil Dog) whose memories of the fighting in Belleau Woods, France during World War I were so vivid he didn’t speak of the war until he was in his 80s. At 84 he travelled with his son back to France, where he was able to stand in the same fox hole he’d fought in all those years ago. He could still picture the Marines who had died beside him. He could recite all of their names.

Ira Hayes' grave in Arlington

It’s about people, like Ira Hayes, who, even if they didn’t die, were never the same again.

The surviving members of Edson’s Raiders used to meet annually at Quantico, until there were too few left for a reunion. I met with them many times and listened to their stories. They always made sure to tell me about Smitty. He had been wounded on Guadalcanal during heavy fighting, and they’d been forced to leave him propped against a tree so they could continue the advance, but they promised to get him on their way back. They never saw him again, and they never learned what had happened to him.

In Yuma, Arizona, I met Delbert “Sparky” Sparks, a submariner who had been captured on Mindanao in The Philippines and was forced to make the 80-mile Bataan Death march, during which more than 15,000 civilians and military personnel died from the brutal treatment by their Japanese captors. Sparky was one of only 510 prisoners in his camp who survived until they were liberated by Army Rangers. He waited more than 40 years to tell his story, and to receive his Bronze Star and POW medal. There were some parts of his story he refused to share.

History books and visits to our national battlefields and monuments have also put pictures into my head. I’ve stood at the Alamo and wondered what it must have been like for the fewer than 200 men, after holding off the first two waves of Santa Anna’s nearly 2,000 men, to watch that north wall come crashing down and know they were in their last minutes of life on this earth.

I’ve looked over the sunken road wall in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Confederate Army Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland spent a long, cold December night listening as hundreds of wounded Union soldiers on the other side lay dying, crying out for help. I wondered what he thought as he leapt across that wall, armed with canteens, and tried to dole out that last measure of kindness to his Union brothers.

And I’ve read with awe, the accounts of heroes like Marine Lt John Bobo, who, while fighting in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, had his right leg severed below the knee. Knowing he could not survive, he used his belt for a tourniquet and jammed the stump into the dirt to stem the bleeding. Then, ordering his men to safety, he laid fire at the enemy until he was overrun, but not before his men were able to safely reposition to a place from which they launched a successful attack and repelled the enemy.

LCpl Thomas Julian, USMC

High school friend, LCpl Thomas Julian, who went to Beirut Lebanon in 1983 and never returned

People, with names and faces. Selfless acts of gallantry. Pride in this nation and her ideals. Our country lives on and its people are free because of its legacy of heroes. This is not Thank a Veteran Day, although it is always appropriate to do so. This is Remember the Cost Day. When you hear the Rolling Thunder bikers parade past, consider the Prisoners of War for whom they ride. When you lift your toast to those who served, say a prayer for those who will never be the same because of what they saw, or because of their injuries. Reflect a moment about the freedoms we still enjoy, and honor the sacrifice that made them possible. Learn their stories; teach them to your children; don’t let their names fade away.

How do you celebrate Memorial Day? You don’t.


13 Responses to “Memorial Day: What’s to Celebrate?”

  1. Nelson Perry May 26, 2014 at 12:46 pm #

    Great words.

  2. Kathleen Grunden May 26, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

    Thank you, Rose, for reminding us of those unsung heroes who truly made such a difference in our lives today.

    • Joe May 26, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

      You have truly described Memorial Day as it to be celebrated…..To remember the costs of freedom.

  3. Martha Saunders May 26, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    I don’t know how to describe this – awesome and words like that don’t do it justice – hope you posted on FB! Martha

  4. Mark Brown May 26, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    Rose, thank you so much for your superb words on Memorial Day–brought tears to my eyes. Bless you, and God bless and save our Nation.

  5. Jerry May 26, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    Well said!

  6. Sheryl Joy May 28, 2014 at 6:00 am #

    I, too, find myself needing to reflect rather than to celebrate on Memorial Day. Thank you, Rose.

  7. Marcia June 14, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing these memories and stories with us. For not pulling any punches. For making us stop and think about our heroes as individual people with stories most of us will never hear. I wish I had seen this earlier, but the message is the same. We should hold our men and women in uniform in our hearts every day of the year, and never, ever forget the ones who paid the ultimate price for their bravery.

    • pjoy93 June 14, 2014 at 8:02 pm #

      Thank you Marcia. And amen.

  8. Portrait Writer May 28, 2016 at 8:08 am #

    Reblogged this on The Portrait Writer and commented:

    Every year I think I should write something new for Memorial Day, but this still says everything I want to say. Sorry to those who have already read it, but some things just shouldn’t change…

  9. Allyn Bamberger May 28, 2016 at 12:33 pm #

    Never change that blog, Rose. It is wonderful, thoughtful, and meaningful. We owe so much to our armed forces, and most of us have no idea what they go through! To all those who have served their country I say, Thank you for your service!

  10. Elaine Beachy May 28, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

    “How do you celebrate Memorial Day? You don’t.” When I read that, I thought that Americans indeed should use the word “honor” instead of “celebrate,” given the huge sacrifices made by men and women of honor. Good post as always, Rosemarie!

  11. Erin Unger May 28, 2016 at 9:21 pm #


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