Memorial Day 2023 – Remembering those who gave all

What does Memorial Day mean to you?  According to a survey, “less than half of Americans know the true meaning behind Memorial Day.”

To many Americans, it conjures up pleasant visions of a day off, family barbecues, and even shopping the holiday sales.  However, as Lawfire® readers may recall the purpose of Memorial Day is to commemorate those who have died in the service. (Veterans Day – Nov. 11- is intended to honor all veterans). 

 Courtesy of the Census Bureau, here’s the origins of Memorial Day:

“Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who died in service to their country.  The holiday was officially proclaimed in 1868 to honor Union and Confederate soldiers and was expanded after World War I to honor those who died in all wars. It became an official federal holiday in 1971, known as Prayer for Peace, Memorial Day.  Today, Memorial Day honors over 1 million men and women who have died in military service since the Civil War began in 1861.”

The President has issued his annual proclamation saying:

[I] proclaim May 29, 2023, as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and I designate the hour beginning in each locality at 11:00 a.m. of that day as a time when people might unite in prayer and reflection.  I urge the press, radio, television, and all other information media to cooperate in this observance.  I further ask all Americans to observe the National Moment of Remembrance beginning at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day. 

The “Flags in” tradition

Here’s a Memorial Day custom at Arlington National Cemetery you may not know about.  It’s described this way:

Just before Memorial Day weekend, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (the “Old Guard”) honors America’s fallen heroes by placing American flags at gravesites for service members buried at Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery.

This tradition, known as “Flags In,” has taken place annually since the Old Guard was designated as the Army’s official ceremonial unit in 1948. Every available soldier in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment participates, placing small American flags in front of more than 228,000 headstones and at the bottom of about 7,000 niche rows in the cemetery’s Columbarium Courts and Niche Wall. Each flag is inserted into the ground, exactly one boot length from the headstone’s base.

In addition, flags will be placed at the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery in Washington.  There are 14,000 buried there, including 21 Medal of Honor recipients.

The tens of the thousands of “flags are removed after Memorial Day, before the cemetery opens to the public. 

Thousands have yet to come home… 

There are 5,000 unknown soldiers buried at Arlington.  Additionally,  according to the Department of Defense more than 81,500 Americans remain missing from WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Gulf Wars/other conflicts.” 

From the DPAA site: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Katherine Valley, a DPAA research analyst, carries a case during an honorable carry ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, May 17, 2023. The case contains potential osseous material from a recovery site in Cambodia and received honors in route to the laboratory at DPAA where the scientific analysis will begin. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ariel Owings)

The military never stops searching for those still missing.  Today, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) with a budget of just $130 million has the incredibly important mission to provide the fullest possible accounting of those still missing from past conflicts.  DPAA explains:

According to Section 1513, Title 10, United States Code, and Department of Defense (DoD) policy, unaccounted-for DoD personnel from past conflicts may only be “accounted for” if they are returned alive or their remains are recovered and identified.

The grieving of the families…

The President said this about Memorial Day:

The Korean War Memorial in winter

“This is always a day where pain and pride are mixed together. To all those who are mourning the loss of a service member — including America’s Gold Star Families — we see you and grieve with you.  And we know that on this day especially, the pain of their absence can feel overwhelming.  But for so many of you, that pain is wrapped around the knowledge that your loved one was part of something bigger than any of us; that they chose a life of mission and purpose; and that they dared all, risked all, and gave all to preserve and defend an idea unlike any other in human history: the United States of America.”

I don’t think anyone who hasn’t actually suffered this kind of loss can truly fathom it, but if you want to get some sense of it, I invite you to watch (with your family if possible) this brief (eight minute and 21-second) video found here

The youth of the fallen…

1Lt Laura Walker, KIA, Afghanistan, Age 24.

You’ll note in the video how young many of the surviving spouses and children are.  Here’s why: most of fallen servicemembers were also young, and frequently very young.

According to figures from a 2020 Congressional Research Service report, in the two main post 9/11 campaigns, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom, just over 50% were age 24 or younger, and nearly 78% were age 30 or younger.

The youth of those lost makes Ronald Reagan’s speech about soldiers giving up “two lives” so poignant.  It is discussed in more detail in this 2018 post: “Memorial Day: Honoring those who gave up two lives.”

Art can be powerful…

I also urge you to watch the five-minute extract from Saving Private Ryan found here.  As a writer explained “[w]hile the characters are fictitious, many of its events are inspired by actual historical records.”  The screenwriter “began writing Saving Private Ryan after studying the true story of Sergeant Frederick ‘Fritz’ Niland.”

The Sullivan brothers on board USS Juneau: Joe, Frank, Al, Matt, and George.

The search for Sgt. Niland was the result, tells us, of “a U.S. War Department ‘sole-survivor’ directive designed to keep families from losing every one of their sons.” 

The directive was put in place after the five Sullivan brothers serving together on the light cruiser USS Juneau all died when their ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1942.  (The events after the sinking of the Juneau are especially heart-breaking.)

Today the Hubbard Act explicitly permits a military member to request discharge where the member “is the only surviving child in a family in which the father or mother, or one or more siblings, served in the Armed Forces and, because of hazards incident to such service, was killed, died as a result of wounds, accident, or disease, is in a captured or missing in action status, or is permanently disabled… “ (See also here).

In prior posts I’ve asked you to watch the short video (here) made from scenes from the movie Taking Chance. The film, starring Kevin Bacon, is based on a true story about the journey of the remains of a 20-year-old Marine, Chance Phelps, who was killed in action in Iraq, and Marine lieutenant colonel Mike Strobl who volunteered to accompany him home. (A news report about Lt. Col Strobl, the Marine officer who Kevin Bacon played in the movie, is here.).

If nothing else, listen to Trace Adkins’ Arlington (here), and/or Coffey Anderson’s song “Memorial Day” (here) – they hit the mark.

Justice Holmes…

A friend who is a retired military lawyer sent a note with this story about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.  He kindly permitted me to share it with you:

Justice Holmes during the Civil War

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was wounded three times in the Civil War. He was seriously wounded in October 1861 at Ball’s Bluff (in the chest).  In September 1862, he was one of 22,717 men who fell during the Battle of Antietam. 

He was shot through the neck at Antietam and left for dead on the field. Upon finally being seen by field medics, he asked them to please hold off on using a tourniquet for his neck injury.

Remarkably, he rejoined his regiment near Fredericksburg just over a month later, just in time for the butchery that was Fredericksburg.  He was again wounded at Chancellorsville in May 1863. 

In 1884, Holmes delivered an address on Memorial Day titled In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire.  He described its meaning (and he would know):

“So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly.”

He summed up, by saying:

“But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death – of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.”

What to do on Memorial Day…

So how can you and your family honor the fallen on Memorial Day?  Of course, take another look at what the President asks in his proclamation.  And a listing of events around the country is found here. You may also want to take a look at my wife’s blog, from last year Memorial Day – 22 Ways to Enjoy and Pay Tribute.

So, yes, enjoy the day but don’t forget that for many families and veterans, there’s an empty chair at the table.  For them, every day is Memorial Day.   

We must not forget…

Finally, it is wonderful when there is a physical memorial to help us remember.  Of course, that isn’t the case for every operation in which Americans gave their lives.    

One example I think about often is our Somalia operation in the early 1990s.  It began as a purely humanitarian mission to save starving Somalis, but turned into a series of tough, lethal fights.  44 U.S. servicemembers paid the ultimate price (along with Americans in civilian agencies) trying to help the Somalis.  

It is hardly the only little-known operation.  There are literally hundreds of instances  in U.S. history where military forces were used abroad, and in many cases troops’ lives were lost.  Again, we must not forget.

Remembering is vitally important.  Here’s how my friend closed his note about Justice Holmes:

So, I ask that we not forget the sacrifice of those who have given their last full measure so that our nation’s “trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.” 


At the end of the video clip of the movie Taking Chance, these words appear:

 As the bloodshed in Ukraine tragically reminds us…

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