The meaning of Memorial Day has never been described better than these words from President Harry Truman at the end of World War II: "Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices." The statement is on the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C., but it applies to all the 1.2 million Americans who have died in the service of the country in all wars, conflicts and police actions. That is, they died in service to you and me.

Go to any national cemetery from Arlington VA to Normandy FR to the Punchbowl in Honolulu or the Alabama National Cemetery in Montevallo and you will begin to understand the meaning of sacrifice. Gaze across the manicured acres at the row upon row of stark white markers and the meaning of Memorial Day will be plain to see.

The men and women buried their answered the call to duty. Some enlisted while others were drafted. All put nation ahead of self. Most had families, loved ones, jobs and a civilian life to return to, but they didn't make it home. Mothers, fathers and wives received the worst of all notifications, "We regret to inform you...".

A poll commissioned by the University of Phoenix in 2020 discovered that only 43% 0f Americans understand the true meaning of Memorial Day.  It found 28% confused Memorial Day with Veteran’s Day while 38% told pollsters they were not sure.

20 years earlier, the National Moment of Remembrance was born because of a concern that more people looked at Memorial Day as the start of the vacation season than as a time remember our nation’s fallen military and be grateful for their sacrifice. The National Moment of Remembrance is an annual event that asks Americans, wherever they are, at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, today, to pause for one minute in the holiday celebrations to remember those who have died in military service to the United States.

The time 3 p.m. was chosen because it is the time when most Americans are at the height of their holiday revelry. The moment was first proclaimed in May 2000, for Memorial Day that year, and was put into law by Congress in December 2000. Yet few people even know it exists.

Memorial Day is not a time to celebrate those who have and are serving in the military (although we should thank them every day), that is what Armed Forces Day and Veteran’s Day are for.  Memorial Day commemorates the American men and women who have died while in the military service of their country from the American Revolution to Afghanistan. In other words, the purpose of Memorial Day is to memorialize the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

The first national celebration of the holiday took place May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery, where both Confederate and Union soldiers were buried. It came after newspapers highlighted the women of Columbus, MS decorating the graves of their sons and husbands who died in the war that divided our nation.

After World War I it was expanded to include the dead from all U.S. wars. The tradition was continued as “Decoration Day”, a time to decorate the graves of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The holiday wasn’t officially recognized as “Memorial Day” until rather recently when it was declared by an Act of Congress in 1971.

It is not just the death of the service member we should recognize; it is the loss and suffering of their family members.  According to the U.S. Army website, Gold Star Mother’s Day was started in 1936. Gold Star Wives began before the end of World War II. Today, the nation recognizes the sacrifice that all Gold Star Family members make when a father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter or other loved one is killed in service.

The loss of these brave men and women in defense of our nation is what has given us the freedom to head to the beach, the backyard, the golf course, lake or ballpark.

Let us not sugar coat or sanitize death in combat; it can be, and often is horrific and painful. Those who have suffered that have earned the right to be remembered.

At 3 p.m. today stop what you are doing and take a few moments to reflect on why Memorial Day is Memorial Day.

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