Memorial Day is one of America’s long-standing holidays that has been in place since the end of the Civil War.
When it was first observed, it wasn’t a three-day weekend known for mega sales, cookouts or the unofficial start of summer; it was a day of remembrance and gratitude for those who died in service to their country. But now, Memorial Day’s intended purpose is too often overshadowed by activities that celebrate the first long weekend of summer.
Gold Star families, the surviving family members of military personnel who died in an active duty status, often take offence at the commercialization of Memorial Day — particularly when the “fun-factor” of the weekend eclipses the reasons why this holiday was created. While others are excited about a day at the beach or a good deal on a refrigerator, Gold Star families contend with the intensified feelings of losing a loved one who was also a service member. At Memorial Day ceremonies across the county, they stand with the nation to honor their own service member, while struggling with the personal grief of losing a spouse, adult child, parent, sibling or grandchild.
Gold Star families have learned the hard way about service and sacrifice. As this Memorial Day approaches, here are three things they want you to keep in mind:
1. Understand why there needs to be a Memorial Day. In today’s world, some think Memorial Day is solely dedicated to the fallen from decades-old wars. While the sacrifices made by service members in all wars must be remembered, Memorial Day needs to be a respectfully recognized holiday for all Americans — now and in years to come. There is a potent message in the expression “Freedom is not free,” and in our post 9/11 world, personal freedoms can’t be taken for granted. All currently serving military personnel contribute in some way to protecting our freedoms; some pay dearly. Memorial Day is for honoring those who have recently died, too.
2. Know that service members die in many different ways every day. Many Americans think military personnel only die in wars. While combat deaths embody the ultimate sacrifice we’re all familiar with, service members die on other military operations, during training exercises, because of equipment failure and accidents, or by suicide. The numbers are staggering. According to the Department of Defense, since 9/11 more than 16,000 service members have died in non-combat circumstances, more than double the 7,000 who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It is a disservice to gloss over the loss of service members in non-hostile circumstances. All made the commitment to serve for the greater good of the country.
Gold Star widow Diane Atkins, whose husband Marshall flew in combat but was killed stateside, has often felt his death was seen as less important because it happened in training. “Marshall was killed on a training hop to keep his skills sharp,” said Diane. “Everyone expects our guys to be ready when duty calls.”
3. Reconsider “Happy Memorial Day.” It’s not uncommon to hear the phrase “Happy Memorial Day” bantered about, but that doesn’t make it an appropriate thing to say — especially if a Gold Star family or military veteran who has lost friends is within earshot. “It’s like a slap in the face when someone wishes me a ‘Happy’ Memorial Day,” said Lars Williams, Gold Star father of Army Staff Sgt. Wesley Williams. “It’s been over 17 years of war since 9/11 and many still don’t get the point of Memorial Day,” added Lars.
Gold Star families fear their loved ones will be forgotten. Karen Funcheon, Gold Star mother of Army Sgt. Alex Funcheon, has had Gold Star Mother license plates on her vehicle for 11 years. In all that time, only three people have asked her about them. “If you see a Gold Star license plate, take a moment and ask,” said Karen. “The family will appreciate your actions more than you’ll know.”
This year, let’s replace “Happy Memorial Day” with “We will remember.” Even better: choose to attend a local Memorial Day ceremony. The mega-sales events at big box stores will still be available when the ceremony has ended.
Joanne Steen is the author of “WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU: A Survival Guide for Gold Star Parents and Those Who Support Them” and coauthor of “Military Widow: A Survival Guide.” www.griefsolutions.net