It was hot and sticky as we moved from grave to grave in the overgrown, town cemetery. It was obvious no one had been here in weeks, if not months. My group of 6-year-old Girl Scouts had given up soccer games and birthday parties to spend three hours walking from stone to stone in search of heroes. Every time they found a grave marked with the words Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines they called out in glee and planted a flag by its side.
The bright red, white and blue of the fabric was vibrant next to the dull, overgrown weeds. The girls grew giddy as they watched the field fill up with the patriotic colors. Memorial Day was coming and the cemetery was officially ready.
Then, a bystander broke his silence. “You’re putting them on the wrong graves,” he told them. “Memorial Day is only for those who died in service.” The man proceeded to give me a tongue lashing as to how horrible I was for improperly teaching my scouts the meaning of the day. “You don’t honor just any soldier,” he told me.
I was embarrassed and hurt. It is true, Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. It is also true that traditional observances have dwindled over the years. And most of my non-military friends see the three-day weekend as a time for road trips or barbecues, not graveside ceremonies.
He was right. We weren’t celebrating the precise meaning of the day. But as much as he was right, he was wrong.
Lessons in history and national pride can easily be lost in the lure to beach parties and sleeping in. But these little girls, just barely out of kindergarten, were excited and happy to trudge around in the North Carolina heat. They grew up in a military town just outside of Fort Bragg. Many of them had endured months of separation from their moms or dads due to deployments. Those who were not military were inspired by the others. They understood that these men and women, whether they died by the enemy’s hand or simply from old age, were heroes.
I was proud of my scouts, regardless of where they placed those flags. I was proud that they and their parents chose to be there, in this destitute graveyard on a sunny afternoon, honoring the nation’s military.
The sacrifices of the fallen should be honored and remembered. Their sacrifice is greater than most Americans can ever comprehend. But I will not extinguish the excitement and the joy a young child feels when they honor our veterans too.
The call to indifference is too strong. The draw to the parties and the beach is tempting. I applaud all who spend their day honoring our military, even if they place a few flags on the so-called “wrong” graves. Their heart is where it should be and that is what matters.
(This year, you may not be able to place flags, but you can give a few moments and join the National Moment of Remembrance wherever you are. On Memorial Day, May 30 at 3 p.m., your local time, gather your family and friends, stop for a moment of silence, bow your head and pay tribute to those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.)