Many nations set aside days to celebrate the end of wars or major battles, and to honor those who fought in them.
Memorial Day in America is different in that it doesn’t celebrate veterans—we have a different day set aside for that. Memorial Day was designed to celebrate and honor those who have died while in uniformed service to our country in times of peace or war.
While noble in nature, the day presents a unique challenge to those of us who look for ways to show our gratitude.
Every year, my church goes long in its efforts to meet that challenge. In the heart of every Memorial Day service, our pastor asks those who have served in the military to stand, and as they do, the church body thanks them with a rousing, heartfelt round of applause.
The choir lifts the entire sanctuary with a battery of some of the most patriotic music you can imagine, and yet no matter how wonderful the congregation may feel at the end of each service, our collective efforts miss the mark.
As well intended as they are, my church isn’t alone in giving gestures that fall short.
Furniture stores and car dealerships use the occasion to offer special deals to serving military members. Pools open, and communities put on parades that feature local celebrities, marching bands, and veterans from the wars of our age.
Clans of family and friends just like yours gather in homes and parks throughout the United States to revel in the holiday that marks the beginning of summer.
But for most, the Memorial Day revelry will focus on the living. There is little talk of those who gave their all, and even less about what that phrase might mean to one who has never leaned into the thought.
I guess we all need reminders.
I stumbled onto a collection of photos a few weeks ago that rekindled those thoughts in me. It was a site called the Wall of Faces. There, the names of the pictured men and women we lost in Vietnam are revealed with the move of a cursor.
As the arrow touched each photo, my mind quickly calculated the time that separated their birth and casualty dates. Some were a bit older and Vietnam was at least their second war, but the majority were under 20 when they died.
That’s when the second piece of math hit me.
I have lived 38 years since my 20th birthday. In the years beyond, I met and married an incredible woman.
I was there to welcome our two sons into this world, and I’ve been right by their side to celebrate those birthdays for all but a fraction of their years.
Somewhere along the way, I managed to climb into the dream I dreamed of as a child and, while the highs I’ve enjoyed as a man have been immeasurable, they don’t quite measure up to my all.
You see, I’ve been given time enough to be a loving partner in life for my wife, and a doting father, shepherd, and coach for my two sons.
When I think about all that I’ve been given, I begin to get a sense of what others gave up when they gave us their lives.
Two men died of exposure during Gen. George Washington’s march on Trenton in the winter of 1776. Last fall, four special operations personnel lost their lives in combat in Africa. And on February 2nd of this year, Shawn Thomas gave us his life while serving in Niger.
Like those we’ve lost in every other conflict, incursion, or mishap, their stories run the gamut. Some have been immortalized as heroes. So many more, maybe like the two we lost on the march to Trenton, have faded into near anonymity, save for the memories they left with the living.
Over the course of my years in the service, I knew the contagious laughter, the loves and aspirations of 13 different men who laid down their lives. While each willingly gave up everything for this nation of ours, our gratitude is what will carry them forward in memory.
When you wake up Memorial Day morning, take a moment to remember one of your heroes. If you don’t have one of your own, step into this page and do your own math. Then before the holiday meal begins, lean into those closest to you with their story.
And when you hit your knees Monday night, take another moment to say a prayer for their families – the ones who long for the company, the loving touch of one who gave their all for you and me.