Photographs and Memories: Memorial Day, What It Is and Why It Is

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

It's safe to say that most Americans are enjoying a day off today, the last day of a three-day weekend, and the traditional start of the summer vacation and travel season. We're already seeing the signs here in the Great Land, where the Parks Highway is getting the increased traffic of rented recreational vehicles headed north towards Denali and points beyond. Summer's coming, and it's time to think about vacations and time outside.

But there's so much more to this day, than just a free day for a few beers and some steaks on the grill.

Memorial Day originated, informally, as Decoration Day, when not long after the Civil War, May 30th was the day when families of the fallen decorated the graves of their fallen members with patriotic colors and flowers. In 1971, due to the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Memorial Day was officially moved to the last Monday in May - the better, we suppose, to make for more three-day weekends. But sometimes, it seems that in so doing, we've lost the purpose of the holiday.

Memorial Day is, of course, the day in which we take some time to remember those who fell in the service of their country (or, at least, we should). This isn't our day, after all; it's theirs.

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Not all of those brave soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines fell in combat, but their sacrifice is no less meaningful because of that. As a case in point, I take you back to December of 1990.

The year before, I had finished up a stint of active duty in the Army and, not wanting to give it all up completely, ended up joining a Colorado National Guard medical company. I was a First Lieutenant, and as I was a qualified Medical Logistics Management (67K, as was), they gave me the job of Headquarters Platoon Leader, with responsibility over supply, food service, and the motor pool. In November of 1990, that unit was called to active duty and we found ourselves at Fort Carson, Colorado, preparing to deploy to what was then being called Operation Desert Shield. 

Our deployment was postponed, as it happened, until after New Year's Day, so the Army, in its endless beneficence, gave us all five days at Christmas so we could spend the holidays with our families. I picked up my pass, threw a bag in my pickup, and headed off to Iowa to see my little girl, who was eight years old at the time.

When I returned, still in civvies, and walked into the barracks they had assigned to our company, the company commander was waiting for me. "Lieutenant Clark," he said, "...come with me."

We went into a small antechamber to the side of the day room that the commander had made into an improvised office, and which I suspect had been a broom closet. With no warning, the commander came right out and said, "Sergeant Martinez is dead."

That was a bit of a shock. Sergeant Francisco Martinez was one of the mechanics in the motor pool, and also a mechanic in civilian life. He was a cheerful man, always upbeat, always one you could count on to get the job done. Everyone in the company liked "Frank," as they called him. But he had gone home to southeast Colorado to spend Christmas with his daughter, his only family, and while driving back to Fort Carson, Frank's car had suddenly rolled off the highway into the ditch. A family in a car that had been following his stopped, but Frank was dead, of a sudden and massive heart attack. Could the stress of the imminent deployment have contributed to that? Or would Frank have suffered that fate regardless? Those questions, we will never be able to answer.

The next day my supply section chief came to me. "We have to inventory Frank's personal stuff he has here, Eltee," he said. "We need two people to verify it all. Want me to grab one of the guys from the motor pool?"

"No," I told him. "I'll do it." I didn't see the need to put anyone who had worked with Frank through that.

So we went through Frank's personal effects, inventoried it, boxed it up, and shipped it to his daughter. I wrote a letter to Frank's daughter as well, as is the custom. A few days later I went to his funeral, only a few days before we were to deploy. His daughter was, as you might imagine, distraught. But our company had a job to do, and only hours later we were on a plane, bound first for Saudi Arabia, then points north. What happened next is a story for another day.

Sergeant Francisco Martinez was the only soldier I ever lost while under my command. What difference is there that it was a heart attack? He served, like any soldier, and he died while serving. This day is about him, as well as all of those who fell while serving America.

Like most Americans, this is a long weekend for me, and I'll knock back a few beers, have a nice meal or two, and enjoy a little extra leisure. (I don't consider writing work; I enjoy it too much.) But every Memorial Day, I think of Frank, of what a good man he was, how popular he was with his fellow soldiers, how he always reacted to an order with, "Sure thing, Eltee, I'll get it done." 

I think of my Dad's older brother, horribly wounded by a German 88 shell while serving in the 101st Airborne in Europe in 1945. I think of my Mom's oldest brother, who took a Japanese bayonet through the shoulder on Iwo Jima and nearly died of sepsis. I think of my Dad, a bomber navigator, and my Mom's second brother, a radio operator/gunner in a bomber in Europe, and my brother-in-law, who was one of Chesty Puller's Chosen Frozen, who was shot in the leg on the retreat from Chosin Reservoir. It's only luck that those men survived, that they did not end up underneath a white cross in a veteran's cemetery in 1945 or 1951.

Enjoy the long weekend, by all means. Enjoy the time with your family, and enjoy whatever plans you have made. 

But take a moment - or several - and remember the ultimate sacrifice that so many made, to make it possible for you to enjoy this day. We may be enjoying this day - but it's their day, and we forget that at our peril. Without them, we wouldn't have a nation. Without them, we wouldn't be free. And, I suspect, most of them would say that this was all worth it.


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