By Jeff Olson
Someone once said, “Our flag does not fly because the wind moves it. It flies with the last breath of each soldier who died protecting it.” In several days we will have an opportunity to pause from our busy lives to honor those Americans who have given their lives in service to their (and our) country. Major General John A. Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially proclaimed Decoration Day on May 5, 1868 and it was first widely observed on May 30, 1868. Former Union general and sitting Ohio congressman General James A. Garfield (later the 20th U.S. president) gave a speech in remembrance of fallen Union and Confederate soldiers, saying that “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.” Afterward, about 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
This event was inspired by a number of similar observances in local communities across America. Some of these tributes would become official days of remembrance in states, with New York being the first in 1873. In the years since, Decoration Day grew into an institutionalized local and national tradition as Memorial Day to honor all Americans who have died while in military service. Fifty years ago, through the National Holiday Act of 1971, Memorial Day became an officially recognized national holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May. Some states still have an additional day set aside for honoring the Confederate war dead.
This Memorial Day also commemorates one hundred years when in 1921 Sgt. Edward F. Younger selected one of four unknown soldiers buried in American military cemeteries in France to become America’s Unknown Soldier representing all of those who were lost by the U.S. during World War I. That body now lies in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Tomb sarcophagus is decorated with three wreaths on each side panel (north and south). On the front (east), three figures represent Peace, Victory and Valor. The back (west) features the inscription: Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God. In March 1926, soldiers from nearby Fort Myer were first assigned to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but only during daylight hours. In 1937, the guards became a 24/7 presence, standing watch over the Unknown Soldier at all times. There are three other soldiers buried at the tomb. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the unknowns of World War II and Korea. The selection ceremonies and the interment of those unknowns took place in 1958. The Unknown of Vietnam was only unknown for a short time. After being placed into the tomb in 1984, the Unknown was exhumed in 1988. Thanks to mitochondrial DNA testing, Department of Defense scientists were able to identify the remains as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. It was decided that the crypt that contained the remains of the Vietnam Unknown will remain vacant. The crypt cover was replaced with a new inscription that now reads: Honoring and Keeping Faith with America Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier continues to serve as a focal point of mourning and a site for reflection of the sacrifices made by our armed forces in defense of liberty.
Memorial Day honors the more than 1.3 million American military deaths since 1775. As we approach and observe Memorial Day 2021, we must be careful not to allow the “holiday” to obscure or overshadow the “Memorial” as we partake in our weekend activities. Memorial Day should be a solemn reminder of the cost of freedom and it should renew our understanding of the necessity for our own commitment to preserving it through active and responsible citizenship. And, we should never forget to remember, pray for, and express our gratitude and respect to those men and women currently serving in our military, including their families.
Freedom is truly every citizen’s call to duty, and this call has never been more important than in 2021. In the words of General Douglas MacArthur, “No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation.” As President Ronald Reagan expressed it: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”