By James M. Corley
Wanting to express our appreciation to the men and women who have served our country, the leaders of our congregation planned a special Sunday morning service on Memorial Day weekend. We asked our veterans to attend in their military uniforms.
Our band played a song for each branch of the military. When “Anchors Aweigh” was played, we asked those who had served or were serving in the US Navy to stand. They stood amid an outburst of applause.
We did the same for those in the Air Force, the Army, and the Marines.
Our veterans stood proud. You could tell they were honored by this observance. Their family members were encouraged too.
A gentleman wearing his World War II Army officer’s uniform later told us this was the first time he had been thanked publicly for his service.
We were pleased we had touched people so deeply.
Looking back, I only wish we had been more thoughtful in our planning. If we had, we may have noticed something. We may have heard other voices saying, “Remember me!”
Memorial Day History
Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday of May. It was established as a national day to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
In 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, president Abraham Lincoln famously observed, “We cannot dedicate—we can not consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
He went on to say,
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.
Lincoln believed keeping our war dead in mind provided inspiration to pursue the cause of freedom.
Perhaps in response to Lincoln’s speech, General John Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, on May 5, 1868 proclaimed a national memorial day. Logan called it “Decoration Day.” It was first celebrated on May 30 of that year.
As part of his proclamation, General Logan urged, “Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor.” (Read the entire proclamation at http://suvcw.org/logan.htm.)
In 1967 the name Decoration Day was officially changed to Memorial Day, although the process of changing the name started in the 19th century.
Jesus said, “Remember me” (1 Corinthians 11:24). In obedience to his command, we observe the Lord’s Supper when we gather to worship so we won’t forget.
In many congregations the celebration of Easter completely overshadows Good Friday. The resurrection of Jesus is amazingly good news. Yet Jesus urged us to remember his death. Why? Maybe it’s the vulnerability of his suffering and death people find so attractive. Perhaps regularly calling his death to mind is the best way to honor his sacrifice.
Lest We Forget
Celebrating Memorial Day has a similar purpose. However, I have often seen congregations on Memorial Day weekend applaud surviving veterans, or those currently serving in the military, yet never mention their fallen comrades.
This may simply be an oversight. Or it might be a form of collective denial. We love happy endings. We tend to ignore the fact that death is a part of living in this world. Maybe we avoid Good Friday for the same reason we focus on the living during the last weekend in May.
Not every soldier comes home. According to the Home of Heroes website, more than 1.4 million American military personnel have died in combat since the start of the American Revolutionary War (http://www.homeofheroes.com/moh/memory/statistics.html).
Since September 11, 2001, nearly 5,000 of America’s military personnel have died in our “War on Terror” (http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0004615.html).
Every one of those men and women who put themselves in harm’s way challenge us to “Remember me!”
Billy, Ralph, and Pat
Clyde McLain, Sr. recalls his friend, William Reeves, a minister’s son from Mesner, Alabama. McLain and Reeves were Marines in World War II. Many knew Reeves as “Billy the Kid.”
During the Battle of Saipan, June 1944, Reeves had a strong impression. He told Clyde, “I’m gonna’ git it this time.” Friends said, “Don’t go thinking like that!” But as Clyde and he walked away, Bill said, “Mac, that’s just the way it is.”
Reeves was a Marine infantryman. The next day, without hesitation or complaint, Billy volunteered to operate a machine gun to cover their landing craft’s approach to the beach. While acting as gunner he was mortally wounded. Two days later he died. McLain reports, “Bill knew Jesus. I plan to see him again!”
If we ignore or forget those who have paid for our freedom with their blood, don’t we cheapen the service of those still living? Won’t they fear their sacrifice will also be ignored once they are dead?
Ralph Snyder was a crew chief and gunner in 1969 in Viet Nam. He survived many close calls. But his friend, Ralph Roland, a helicopter pilot from Ontario, Oregon, didn’t make it. Remembering his fallen friend may be the very best way for us to honor Mr. Snyder’s service. I think both Ralphs would say, “Remember Me!”
Pat Tillman played football for the NFL Arizona Cardinals. Hearing the call of duty, Tillman gave up his professional career to enlist as an Army Ranger in 2002. He made it clear this was his patriotic response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. On April 22, 2004 Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. Because of his stature and celebrity, Tillman has been remembered—and rightfully so.
But what about the others who died serving the cause of freedom? Shouldn’t they be remembered too?
I wish we had listened more carefully and thought more deeply when we planned our Memorial Day weekend church service. If we had, we may have heard others in the room—fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, grandparents, and maybe even grandchildren of those who never made it home. If we had listened, we might have heard the voices of these families saying, “Remember me!”
If we had heard their voices, we would have found a way to respond. Perhaps after the music and the applause, we could have asked those who had lost a loved one in a war to stand. We could have put grateful hands on the shoulder of a friend or neighbor. We could have offered a prayer of gratitude in a moment of silence. In the eloquence of that quiet moment we could have said, “We remember!”
With our hearts properly tuned we may have heard other voices too. VA hospitals are filled with broken heroes. Others wander our city streets homeless or addicted. The hearts of these families also plead with us, “Remember me!”
I’m glad we honored the living in our worship service. I’m also glad we have the opportunity to observe Memorial Day every year, because, with God’s help, we’ll find a way to express our thanks to those who have given “their last full measure of devotion.”
Can you hear their voices? Can you hear their comrades and families? I think they may all be urging us on Memorial Day, “Remember me!”
James M. Corley is a freelance writer in San Tan Valley, Arizona.
Seven Ways to Remember
1. Attend a Memorial Day ceremony at a park or cemetery.
2. Watch the American Battle Monuments Commission video, then forward the link to friends. The ABMC maintains 24 permanent American burial grounds on foreign soil. Presently there are 124,909 U.S. war dead interred at these cemeteries.
3. Keep silence for one full minute at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day, the National Moment of Remembrance and listen to “Taps.” (You can hear a recording of “Taps” here.)
4. Take a child to visit a cemetery. Invite the child to help decorate a veteran’s grave with flowers and flags. (Find a Veterans’ cemetery locator.)
5. Sponsor a Memorial Day essay contest and offer prizes for first, second, and third places.
6. Ask a combat veteran to tell you a story about a fallen comrade or the challenges he faced while serving. Thank him for his service.
7. Find a way to be generous—even extravagant—to a family that lost a loved one in combat. Show them you appreciate their sacrifice.