With Memorial Day just around the corner, it has us thinking about how so many Americans have forgotten the true meaning of the holiday that we, as veterans, hold so close to our hearts. Across the nation, graves of America's fallen heroes are increasingly ignored and neglected and most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. The tradition for cities and towns to hold Memorial Day parades is slowly becoming lost as today the numbers of those parades are decreasing.
As proud veterans, we know Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, was created to honor those that have fallen in battle; a day to remember those who died serving our great nation and protecting our freedoms. Unlike Veterans Day where we honor all Veterans who served, this day is set aside to memorize those who gave the ultimate sacrifices for liberty.
I am always honored to write on behalf of the Chautauqua County Veterans Service Agency, but it is especially humbling to write about the celebration this nation participates in on the last Monday in May. It is a somber day of remembrance for Chautauqua County residents as our eyes were recently opened a little wider to the reality of war and the commitments and sacrifices that our military men and women make for this country each and every day.
We do a wonderful job of creating and building physical reminders of our great, sometimes dark, history. The Vietnam Wall, the WWII Memorial, and the Korean Memorial, to name a few, are all solid symbols of the nation's desire to physically commemorate our fallen heroes. At these hallowed places, we can see and even trace with our fingertips the names of those in uniform who have given their lives in defense of our country.
We have awarded medals to many soldiers, and added their names to monuments and even named buildings and bridges after them to honor their bravery. But nothing can ever replace the hole left behind by a fallen service member, and no number of medals and ribbons can comfort the family and friends left behind.
Memorial Day is a single day during which we honor the spirit of all those who died in service to our nation but whom we continue to remember and honor in our hearts. Instead of seeing a stone monument, we see the faces of all those whom, over the years, have sacrificed their lives in the defense of freedom. We think about their families and friends, perhaps people we know, and mark this day by celebrating their legacy, while grieving their absence in our lives by ceremoniously decorating their final resting place.
From the soldiers who shivered and starved through the winter at Valley Forge; to the Doughboy's crouched in the muddy trenches of France; to the platoon who patrolled the mountains in Korea, or the hazy jungles of Vietnam; and now those searching the mountains of Afghanistan, we remember and honor them all.
In the words of President Ronald Reagan: "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We did not 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."
Compared to our large nation, our small Chautauqua County is sadly represented as having such young service members die or become Missing in Action in the quest for Democracy. In World War II, our county lost 345 soldiers, in Korea there were 15, in Vietnam 52 and from our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 5 service members perished for the quest of freedom.
For a long time, this humble Day seemed at risk of becoming just another day off work. It was a reason to have a picnic or barbecue; the marking of the baseball and softball season; the end of the school year, or just the marking of the "unofficial" beginning of summer.
A key component of our nation's greatness lies in our ability to honor, appreciate, and cherish, through our actions and our memories, all those who died to ensure our freedom. We often hear that freedom has a price and that each generation pays its due. Today is our day to say thank you to those who for generations have foot the bill; to those who have paid so dearly - with their lives. To say thank you to their families and friends whose lives are forever changed and to whom we owe an enormous debt.
So while it is important and proper that we mark this day with a humble silence, it is far more important we spend all our days rejoicing in their service and reminding ourselves that because of our fallen heroes, our country still stands; our founding principles still shine; nations around the world that once knew nothing but fear, now know the blessings of freedom.
We must teach others about the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf so that we might continue to enjoy the liberties and freedoms granted in our Constitution. Their history deserves telling and re-telling. Find a way in your life, at work or home, at church or a youth group meeting, to keep their memories alive. Honor their sacrifices, tell their stories, and cherish their memories. Make this day an annual reminder for those who have given everything. I challenge you to treat Memorial Day with reverence and respect and others will follow your lead.
On this humble day as we get together, we must remember and honor our fallen service members who are gone but never forgotten. We must embrace the responsibility of promoting service to one's country and we do it all in their names. As Americans, we need to celebrate the lives and legacies of those we have lost but never forgotten. Above all, we must never forget the famous quote, "For your tomorrow, they gave their today."
To find out how you can help our Veterans or to find out more about the Chautauqua County Veterans Service Agency and what they offer for veterans, call 363-3842 for the Dunkirk office or 661-8255 for the Jamestown office.
To stay updated on current information from the department and the military community, visit the "Chautauqua County Veterans Service Agency" Facebook page.
Douglas L. Diers, Master Sergeant, USAF, retired, is the director of the Chautauqua County Veterans Service Agency.