Our first Memorial Day in West Bend was in 1994. Our oldest child, Kevin played in the high school band, participated in the parade and this annual ceremony.
We were impressed with the Old Courthouse, jail, and the Veteran’s monuments. Our children performed continuously in this activity or the parade for 12 more years, until our youngest graduated in 2006. We remember some years being sunburned, soaked and possibly one time frozen.
Memorial Days in those years were celebrated pretty much the same way as when I was a kid in Illinois. I grew up in the shadow of the greatest generation. To this day, I cannot fathom putting my life on hold, going through rigorous training and then ending up in a foreign location for several years enduing all kinds of horrors.
I understand now why they and the other service members from every succeeding conflict wished to remain silent.
Every year I still only watched the parade, listened to the speeches, spent a moment or two in silence, heard that 21 gun salute, listened to taps and went on my way, most times to a picnic.
In civics class we learned about the history of Memorial Day. It used to be called Decoration Day when we decorated the graves of the fallen. This tradition dates back to the Civil War, but in 1967 it was declared an official holiday.
The moment of silence is meant to be a period of silent contemplation or prayer; a gesture of respect. This practice is observed on many occasions throughout the year not just Memorial Day.
The 21 gun salute, which is one of our most time honored military traditions, is meant to honor the dead by showing the weapons are no longer hostile.
Taps has been practiced in military camps for many years and although the words have changed it is still played as only 24 notes. It became associated with a military funeral during the Civil War. Someone in charge decided the customary 3 volleys of gun fire over the grave might tell the enemy that we were going to start fighting again.
During the Civil War, three volleys of gun fire signaled a time for both sides to recover their dead from the battlefield, when this grim task was done they used another three volley of gun fire to resume the fighting.
The reality is that most of us celebrate that same way year after year thinking about it for that short time then going on our way. It’s not a bad thing, it’s a tradition, but it is not my reality now.
On December 18, 2006 that reality changed in the blink of an eye very similar to the blink of an eye 27 years earlier the day our son, Kevin was born. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “There is no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were.”
That is my reality. It lays like a thud in my chest. It has affected every facet of our family’s existence.
We share the pain of all the military families who have come before us. The 21 gun salute and taps echo in our ears quite differently now. To those of us in our shoes, it remains the same every time we hear it. Memorial Day is every day.
The new normal has not been all that bad. I have come to realize that it is too hard to be sad; our son spoke of his commitment to his Marines and his resolve to serve. He asked that if anything would happen to him that we live in the light of his life rather than the shadow of his death. His favorite saying was, “Suck it up and deal with it!” He made us proud. Our other children have made us so very proud as well. It is a difficult burden and they have been patient with the sometimes unwanted attention.
We have been from day one continuously enveloped by members of our very large family, the Marines at large have cried with us and have been such an awesome help, the local Veteran’s groups have also been awesome. They helped provide the monument behind us. This community, our parish, and quite literally thousands of strangers have surrounded us with hugs, cards, donations in honor of our son, and good thoughts and so many prayers. I guarantee that we feel every one and need every one to sometimes get from one day to the next. At this very moment, millions of Americans are commemorating just as we are right now and know that we feel their good thoughts and appreciate their prayers even if they are not directed exactly at us.
In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with a thought. We are here today to honor those who have given their lives in defense of our country, but what if our dream could be to end the need for war. To live in a world where we could feel safe and our children could play free of fear, that we all could work for a living wage, and all have that hope of the American Dream. Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that has.”
Can’t we start here today and see the big picture, that we all need to mutually respect each person, have patience to wait our turn and not expect that we are entitled. We would not be commemorating here today if it were not for the names behind me, so start today give someone a smile, or maybe a random act of kindness. We can start a revolution of respect one person at a time. I believe the world will be better for it.
Thank you for honoring the memory of our son today!