Memorial Day Perspective

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The grave of Kenyon Roper – American Aviator of the Great War 

I am a historian/biographer who writes military history.  Memorial Day holds a special place in my calendar.  The holiday is not about grilling, or boating, or visits to the beach.  It was designed for us to commemorate those that have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.  Regardless of the conflict, regardless of their contribution, it is a time when we look to the brave men and women who died and each, in our own way, say “thank you,” even if those words are in our hearts rather than on our lips.

Many of my books deal with WWI aviators.  They used to have a saying when a pilot died during the Great War.  They would say that he, “flew west,” or had “gone west.”  There was something romantic about that concept when you think about it.  It meant that men were not dead – they climbed into the cockpits and flew into the setting sun.  There’s a hint that they are out there somewhere which is oddly comforting.

I have heard some try and say this is not about those veterans that are still with us, but rather the honored dead.  But there are no former service personnel (ask any Marine if he or she is an ex-Marine and you’ll understand).  I respectfully disagree though.  While this was a holiday for honoring the dead, we all know that those veterans walking among us will all eventually “go west.” The thought that we would not honor them now, when they can receive our accolades doesn’t seem right.  To me, Memorial Day is also a time when we show an extra degree of respect for those that are currently serving in our military or who have done so in the past.  Even the veterans of the Cold War where shots were rarely fired are just as significant in our eyes on this day.

Memorial Day is more than just us expressing our thanks.  It is also a time to reaffirm that we will not let their sacrifice to our nation to be one made in vain.  This holiday allows us to consider the alternatives – to think of how the world would be if these men and women had not performed their duties.  Regardless of the character of such men – the honored dead are all heroes in our minds and hearts.

I will be going to the annual Memorial Day ceremony at the National Cemetery in Culpeper VA.  The high school band will play.  There will be speeches.  The Culpeper Minutemen will hold the US, Virginia, and unit flag (Don’t Tread On Me).  And amidst the echoing sounds of Taps being played, I and others will remember to cherish what our veterans have (and continue) provided us.  And while I may criticize our government and leaders, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

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