By Jim Knotts, president and CEO, Operation Homefront
Last month, many of you might have seen the news headlines that March of this year was the first time since February 2003 that an American service member wasn’t killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s a sobering statistic and the reality for a nation at war for more than 13 years. As Memorial Day weekend arrives, we’re grateful for the tremendous sacrifice of those who’ve given their lives in defense of freedom, and hopeful that their sacrifices will continue to be instructive so that future generations may avoid being sent into harm’s way.
In recent times, a good deal has been made over whether or not Americans think about the meaning of this holiday weekend as anything other than a three-day weekend, or take time to reflect on what service to country means. Not surprising, of course, given that less than one percent serve their country in uniform. Congress has even considered changing the holiday from the last Monday in May to its historical founding of May 30, as a way to “force” a reminder to everyone about the significance of the day. Yet I believe – and our organization is a testament to it – that Americans are conscious of the sacrifices made, and are able to live their lives in a way that allows them to enjoy the freedoms of life in this country thanks to the selfless sacrifice of others. One of those freedoms is the right to thoroughly enjoy the unofficial start of summer and the Memorial Day holiday weekend. We shouldn’t begrudge anyone for living the American life to its fullest, but we can encourage everyone to take time to reflect on how that life is protected and made possible.
For those of us in the Washington, D.C. area, so rich with history, it’s not hard to seek out a place to reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day, and there’s no more appropriate place than Arlington National Cemetery. If you’ve been, undoubtedly you visited Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial. This 19th century mansion was never envisioned to be surrounded by more than 250,000 graves as part of a national cemetery, and was initially constructed as testament to George Washington by his heirs. One of those descendants, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, inherited the home at the time of her parents’ passing, and she eventually married a West Point graduate named Robert E. Lee. While Lee considered Arlington House his home for 30 years, he never owned it. And when he resigned his commission to join the Confederacy, he would never see the home again, after the government claimed it for unpaid taxes. In 1864, Arlington National Cemetery was established, and by direction of the Army Quartermaster General, graves were placed as close as possible to the home to render it “uninhabitable” should the Lee family ever want to return. This, you might say, was an ever present reminder for General Lee on the magnitude and consequence of war.
So while none of us find ourselves in General Lee’s place 150 years ago, we are very cognizant of the fact that our way of life has stood the test of time – including a Civil War – thanks to those who have worn the uniform and fought for our country. We are forever indebted, and grateful for their sacrifice.
I wish you all a fantastic Memorial Day weekend, and I know you’ll reflect on the meaning of the day while enjoying time off with family and friends, celebrating the American way of life that we all enjoy.