Column – For all those who served and died

Published 6:14 pm Friday, May 26, 2023

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Anything I am about to say regarding Memorial Day is going to sound so redundant and so lukewarm compared with the subject itself. This feels like one of those moments when mere words are destined to fail. Still, let me at least try. 

I never served in the military. In my college time, my birth year was one of the last required to register for a military draft. Turns out, there hasn’t actually been one held in my adult lifetime although we have been involved nationally in wars. 

My family never directly lost anyone in the service, although we came terribly close. But I do know that we approach a national holiday of appreciation. Somewhere in all of the family gatherings, cookouts, beach trips and the like, I hope we will reconnect with our sense of gratefulness.

You probably know already that Memorial Day was established in 1868. On May 30 of that year, congress observed what was then called Decoration Day. This was an informal observance, not yet voted into being officially. 

Former general and future president James A. Garfield summed up the purpose as follows. At Arlington Cemetery, he said, “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and love for country.” 

In the patriarchal language of his day, Garfield remembered those men who had already by then defended our country. Since then, several more unfortunate armed conflicts have occurred. Countless women have also served honorably and of course many lost their lives as well. 

By 1871, New York state became the first to formally observe this annual holiday. After WWI, our government made this a holiday a national one, remembering those who had lost their lives in all our wars. 

Elizabeth’s grandfather was at Pearl Harbor on the day of the Japanese Invasion. He and a buddy were out in the open as all of the bombing and shooting started. It was their day off and they were unarmed. They ran for their lives, trying to get to the wall of the mess hall. His buddy died in Grandaddy Bo’s arms.

Grandaddy Bo came home safely from World War II, if his physical body were to be the only scorecard. But then again, he didn’t. He was never the same as a person. He struggled the rest of his days, trying to cope with what had happened. Substance abuse became his self-medication, and he never really got on top of that. 

Elizabeth and I know that our own fathers served our nation during the Korean Conflict. Born just a smidge late for World War II, these youngsters enlisted and went where they were sent. Her father, in particular, told stories of serving as an MP on the front lines abroad. But they came home and we are more than grateful. 

The relative freedom we enjoy is never to be taken for granted. Not to sound cliche, but the simple truth is that our freedom has come at a high price. This has been true in our current era, as well as with all previous generations. 

I’m not a fan of war. That much is an understatement. I believe that any reasonable diplomatic and economic measures should be exhausted before going to war. Obviously, there are times when there is no other choice. Certainly in all cases we have to defend ourselves and our allies when aggression comes our way.

Then again, I hope no one in their right mind likes war. The horror, the destruction, the losses of life boggle the mind. I think there is no sane way to glamorize or minimize killing such that war is a good thing. I hope we will agree on that. 

As Memorial Day approaches, one thing is sure. We have been served faithfully and bravely by generations who defended our country and its causes. We don’t have to glamorize armed conflict in order to be grateful for those who sacrificed in the ultimate way. 

So, fire up the grill. Take a road trip. Gather with your friends and family. Enjoy a hot dog, some baked beans and a little of that delectable sausage dip. But somewhere along the way, remember that this day off is so much more. Remember to be grateful.

Dr. Charles Qualls is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.