As with many occasions that roll around every year, the significance of Memorial Day can often be overlooked because it is an annual rite. But each year, for someone, Memorial Day has for the first time taken on added significance. That is because each year more of our nation’s finest young men and women have died preserving the freedoms that all too many Americans take for granted.
Over the past decade the price has been especially steep. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks we have been engaged in a war against terrorism with major fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently a third military operation in Libya. Special forces; including those that recently killed al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, have further extended the battlefield.
While America continues to honor those who fought and died in wars from generations past, each year we have more to memorialize as casualties from the current conflicts continue to mount. For the families, friends, and those with whom they served, this Memorial Day is the first they have faced without their loved ones.
In just the past few weeks five Pennsylvanians have paid the price of freedom. First Lieutenant Demetrius Frison, 26, of Lancaster was killed by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom; Army Reserve Captain Joshua McClimans, 30 of Jamestown was killed by a sniper as he reported for daily duty while serving in Afghanistan; PFC John F. Kihm, 19, of Philadelphia was killed in Afghanistan as was Sargent First Class Benjamin F. Bitner, 37, of Greencastle, killed by a roadside bomb. Lest we forget, Americans are still dying in Iraq, including Major Wesley J. Hinkley, 36, of Carlisle who was killed in Baghdad in April.
These are just the latest American heroes who we should take time to remember this Memorial Day. Amid the backyard barbeques, the super sales at the big box stores, and the day off work, this holiday has a unique purpose and a history that is still being written.
And much of that history has been written right here in Penn’s Woods. Arguably the first Memorial Day came on November 19, 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln attended the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg, site of one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War. Lincoln said: "We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that a nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this."
This desire to honor Civil War dead spawned a number of memorial events. In tiny Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, just outside of State College, three women gathered in October of 1864 to place flowers on the graves of loved ones who died during that war. Emma Hunter, Sophie Keller and Elizabeth Myers agreed to return the following year to honor not only their relatives, but also those who otherwise may have been forgotten. As the story goes the idea caught on and by July 4, 1865 the entire town turned out for what Boalsburg claims was the very first Memorial Day.
President Ulysses S. Grant was the first chief executive to attend what were called Decoration Day services at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868. After World War I, Decoration Day became a day to remember those who died not only in the Civil War, but in all wars. In 1954 congress renamed the holiday Memorial Day, but it was not until 1971 that the occasion was named an official federal holiday and fixed on the last Monday in May.
But the history of Memorial Day did not end there, nor as long as men and women long to be free will the final chapter in its history ever be written. The price of freedom will never fully be paid. As President Lincoln so eloquently concluded at Gettysburg: "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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