How Memorial Day is Different Now

Memorial Day

Lisa Doring prays over the grave of her husband at Arlington. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Don Gomez, Iraq War veteran and spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, describes how Memorial Day is different now than it was when he was a kid:

Like many Americans, I grew up without really understanding the meaning behind Memorial Day. I associated the holiday with barbecues, a day off from school, and sleepy Sunday afternoon movies about submarines and Generals. Even when I was fighting in Iraq, or jumping out of airplanes with the 82nd Airborne Division, it still seemed like an old holiday for old men. As a war veteran, I eventually came to understand the meaning, but I still figured it wouldn’t become my holiday until I was retired and gray.

Ten years of war has changed that. For the quiet few who have shouldered these wars, Memorial Day is no longer an abstract holiday honoring a faceless mass of heroes from a history textbook. It’s a list of names of people you know, reluctantly accumulated and growing ever longer. It’s a reminder of the awkward long-distance phone call to tell a friend that his old squad leader and mentor was killed in an IED blast in Afghanistan. It’s the swirl of emotions felt when informed that a friend was just killed in Iraq, leaving behind a young wife and children. It is the unavoidable sinking feeling, deep in the stomach, of “Why me? Why am I okay?”

For those who serve and those who know and love them, Memorial Day has changed. For the rest of us it’s still about barbecues, blockbuster movie premieres, and the “unofficial start of summer.”

I’m going to take some time today to begin to change that—in my own life anyway. I’m going to pray for the 6,000 service men and women who’ve given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, for their families, friends, and comrades-in-arms left behind. I’m going to pray that no one else will have to make that greatest sacrifice—though I know many more might have to—and, most of all I’m going to pray for peace.

I’m going to pray that my daughter will grow up to live in a world where Memorial Day is once more for honoring names in a history book, and old men (and women) in wheelchairs. A world where her friends aren’t dying on a far-away battlefield. A world where she won’t have to send her own children off to war.

I’m going to pray that the lives lost to war in the last ten years will somehow mean no more lives lost to war in the next ten years, or twenty, or fifty, or a hundred.

And I’m going to try and pray that prayer every day, not just once a year.

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