Established in the wake of massive Civil War casualties, Memorial Day was initially called Decoration Day. Every year on May 30th, members of the military were joined by ladies' societies, veterans, a band and schoolchildren towing wagons full of flowers. They would march in detailed precision to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers and afterwards, everyone would gather in local churches for memorial services honoring those who gave their lives fighting for our nation’s freedom.
Since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, 275 Ohio soldiers have lost their lives in action. 275 stories of bravery and determination came to an abrupt end in battlefields far from the comforts of home. 275 families were left to pick up the pieces and carry on with their lives after receiving the news they dreaded the most.
Why did these soldiers give their lives? Ohio Congressman James A. Garfield asked the same question on May 30, 1868, as he addressed a crowd gathered in Arlington National Cemetery during our country’s first official Memorial Day Celebration.
The answer is the same in 2016 as it was in 1868. Our fallen soldiers gave their lives to protect our freedom. They sacrificed for the love of our country that was founded not on an ethnic identity, religion or shared history but on the idea that all people are created equal and the idea that each of us has a sacred God –given right to life and liberty. They sacrificed to defend our country from all threats to security and sovereignty. They demonstrated the true cost of living in freedom.
How can we as Ohioans honor those who lay down their lives for their country, from the Civil War to the conflict in Afghanistan? In the middle of this divisive election year, we can intentionally take a break from politics and unite as one nation to remember the sacrifice that knows no political party or candidate.
When we see a road named after a fallen soldier in our own community, we can pause for a moment to give thanks for a life lived in service to a higher cause. We can treat the parades, picnic and ceremonies we attend as more than an unofficial celebration of summer’s advent. We can further the cause of the fallen by fighting to make sure our soldiers are fully equipped in the line of duty and that our veterans have the resources needed to flourish in civilian life.
Wherever we happen to be on this last Monday in May, let us do whatever we can to honor the sacrifices of soldiers that, in the words of James A. Garfield, “made immortal their patriotism and their virtue."
Whether you take the time to place a bouquet on the grave of a loved one or march in a parade, this weekend is an opportunity for all of us to express gratitude for the sacrifice that preserves our freedom.