Decoration Day is usually held on a Sunday in late May or early June in the mountainous regions of the American South. Relatives visit graves in family plots or old cemeteries to honor forgotten ancestors and the recently buried. Family folk gather on the chosen day to put flowers on graves, gibber with kin, and enjoy a picnic on the hallowed ground. The practice began prior to the Civil War and is thought to be the real origin of Memorial Day.
Confusion still exists concerning the meaning of Memorial Day versus Veterans Day. To simplify: Memorial Day honors the men and women who died while serving in the US military. Veterans Day remembers all veterans.
Decorating a soldier’s grave is an ancient custom of unknown origins. A grave discovered by archeologists in Iraq is thought to be at least 4,000 years old and contained the remnants of floral sprays. In our country, graves have been decorated with personal belongings and/or flowers long before the Civil War, but the War Between the States ushered in formal remembrances leading up to what we now celebrate as Memorial Day. Several towns, north and south, claim to be the location of the first Memorial Day, but on May 26, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a legal declaration naming Waterloo, NY as the origin of Memorial Day of which Congress concurred. Problem is, the vast majority of historians believe the claim to be apocryphal, in other words, made-up.
WWII changed America forever, including using the word ‘Memorial’ on a regular basis to describe the ‘day’ we honor the fallen. Not until 1967 was the word ‘Memorial’ declared the official name by Federal Law and Congress followed in 1968 by changing the time-honored day of respect from the last day in May to the last Monday in May to create another handy three-day weekend. Several veteran organizations still oppose the new day of celebration claiming the three-day weekend has done nothing but promote a nonchalant attitude among the general public on the day to honor the fallen.
Nevertheless, in recent years Memorial Day has experienced a revival of dedicated and patriotic activity by all faiths and cultures. The simple fact is, our nation has matured to a level of appreciation to realize that no matter the faith, culture, or color of skin, soldiers all bleed the same color blood. All soldiers feel the same fear, the same pain, and yes, in controversial times endure a lack of support and lack of respect. It is a part of our job, a part of our oath, a part of our soul.
The purpose of my Memorial Day “Veteran’s Story” was to list and pay tribute to the fallen warriors of Vietnam of whom I knew personally and whose names are engraved on a long black wall in Washington, DC, but that is indeed, too personal, and a self-centered misuse of a newspaper article. The 300+ veterans I have interviewed remember their buddies also, a friend who died in their arms, a wingman blown from the sky, a sister ship torpedoed into two pieces, a marine being a marine to save other marines.
Local resident Dan Turner, along with family and friends, spend the day at a cemetery to honor his father, a marine, and his mother, a marine, and his older brother, a young marine who lost his life in the Battle for Hue during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. I attended the Turner clan’s day of remembrance one year; a very humbling experience, a day I’m grateful for being one of the ‘lucky ones’ who made it home.
Brigadier General Tim Britt lost his older brother Ted during the heroic defense of Khe Sanh. Ted was 19 years old, awarded the Silver Star, and saved a lot of marines in two successful single-man assaults on enemy positions during a rare ‘fix-bayonets’ brawl against seasoned North Vietnamese soldiers. I interviewed Ted’s Gold Star mother and Brigadier General Britt in their Rockdale County home in an effort to accurately author a story for the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association’s plaque dedication to honor Marine Ted Britt at the Walk of Heroes Memorial Park at Randy Poynter Lake. It was one of the toughest, most heartfelt interviews of my writing career.
Mrs. Britt recalled the day two Marines showed up at their front door. “My husband answered the door and immediately comprehended why the solemn-looking Marines were standing there. I was upstairs when I heard my husband’s ear-piercing mournful wail. It was unlike anything I had ever heard. Ted had only been in Vietnam for a couple of months. It all seemed so quick.”
General Britt said, “I was 7 years old when we lost Ted. I was coming home from school and noticed all the cars parked in the driveway and in front of the house. As soon as I walked in the house my older sister grabbed my hand and took me upstairs. Then she told me about Ted. It was unbelievable, I mean, I didn’t think that could happen, not to my big brother.”
Marine Pfc. Ted Dennis Britt was initially listed as Missing in Action. His remains were finally located and returned home….on Mother’s Day.
Veterans of WWII have similar stories, ‘My brother was killed in France’ or ‘My father’s bomber went down and they never found the crew’ or ‘My son wanted to join and fight and ended up on a remote island in the Pacific. They never found him.’
Steve Burke, a high school buddy, never met his father. Steve said, “He was shot down in Korea. I don’t remember him.”
Marine Gary Price, resident of Newton County, “My best buddy died in my arms.”
A Gold Star sister, “My brother Bobby was en route to Da Nang in his Phantom F-4 fighter jet when it disappeared from the radar screen. They believe he hit the side of a mountain. He’s still there. They never found him or the plane. Missing is bad enough, but to be forgotten is even worse.”
A WWII nurse, “I was engaged to a handsome young man. He was with the first guys into North Africa and among the first killed in February of 1943 at Kasserine Pass. We lost a lot of boys there. He was the one; I never married.”
A Gold Star brother, “My older brother was killed in Korea. I still miss him, even at my age. That’s why Memorial Day is special to me.”
To select only one veteran to be featured in “A Veteran’s Story” on this Memorial Day weekend struck me as inappropriate, if not impossible. We, the lucky ones, who made it home have an obligation to remember our brothers and sisters who were not so lucky. They gave all they had, all they could ever be, all for this thing called ‘freedom’, the pursuit of life, liberty, even to preserve for their countrymen the elusive process called ‘pursuit of happiness’. There is just no way I can honor only one when so many need to be remembered.
Several years ago at a Memorial Day event an American Legion Rider seemingly complained, “I’m really burned out with these events, what about you?” Taken aback, I asked his reasoning. His reply, “Pete, look around. There’s more riders here than attendees. We lost people over there, man, and over here people don’t care. One day, just one day a year we ask people to remember what these guys did, what they went through….I don’t know, man, is it still worth it?”
Memorial Day. Decoration Day. This day of commemoration has also been called a ‘modern cult of the dead’, because ‘it combines Christian themes of sacrifice while uniting citizens of various faiths.’ To reference Memorial Day by this tasteless assumption is to dishonor the very men and women we do honor.
A Navy Seal lost his life in Yemen last week. American warriors are in Harm’s Way in Iraq and Afghanistan and along the 38th Parallel in Korea. They are there for you, for me, for all of us. Allow me to reiterate the rider’s question, ‘Memorial Day, is it still worth it?’ Yes, it is still worth it, because they are still worth it.
“And they who for their country die shall fill an honored grave, for glory lights the soldier’s tomb, and beauty weeps the brave.”
Joseph Rodman Drake
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.