“All of our freedoms and privileges are because there are those among us who will risk all…” Congressman Leonard Boswell
The United States of America is arguably the most diverse nation on earth. Yet, despite their many differences, on some issues all Americans come together. One of great note is the honor and recognition that we bestow upon those who have put their lives on the line in the defense of the nation.
For those who have given their last full measure of devotion in laying down their lives in the defense of America, we make little distinction between that of a general or a foot soldier. All American lives are valued, the loss of all are mourned. For the families of those lost, it lasts a lifetime; for the nation, one day is set aside each year to remember and to honor them.
Memorial Day as we know it today is a relatively new holiday, but the roots of remembrance go back centuries, finally emerging after the Civil War as Decoration Day to honor both Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the war. Although the term Memorial Day has been in use since the late 1800s, the name became official by Federal law in 1967 and in 1971 the holiday was moved to the last Monday in May. Despite some initial unwillingness by some states, the day was recognized as a holiday within a few years by all 50 states.
For many Americans the creation of a three-day weekend at the end of May marks the beginning of summer. It is a day that, in the eyes of some, has become almost equally associated with barbecues as with remembrance. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) stated in 2002:
“Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”
Memorial Day was intended to be separate from Veterans Day, celebrated on Nov. 11, as a day of remembrance specifically for those who gave their lives for the nation. That distinction, however, is difficult as the line between those who have died and those who were, and are, willing to do so is narrow indeed.
Leonard Boswell was drafted into the U.S. Army as a private and rose through the ranks to retire as a Lieutenant Colonel. From there, he continued a life of public service as a state representative and finally as a Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served two tours of duty as an attack helicopter pilot in Vietnam, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Bronze Stars, the Soldier’s Medal, and a host of other medals and commendations.
All occupations in every branch of the military are worthy of distinction as every member of the military serves a purpose in serving the nation, but helicopter pilots and crew members are unique in many respects. They are sent to deliver the troops, to cover troops under fire, to save the wounded and recover the fallen. The very nature of their missions and of the crafts they fly make them uniquely exposed to the mortality of enemy fire.
“In the Vietnam era, assault helicopter pilots had the shortest life expectancy,” Congressman Boswell said. “All you could do is train hard and have all of the information, intel, that you could get. You do it right, remember the lessons learned and never let your guard down. You look out for each other and you take care of your soldiers and they will never let you down.”
From the beginnings of what would become Memorial Day, war had changed and the casualties suffered changed as well.
“Starting with Vietnam, there was no front line,” the Congressman continued. “There was no place where you could be off the front, even for a moment, where you could rest, lay down your weapon and relax a little. I think this change is reflected in many ways, including mental stress, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), divorces and suicide.”
On this Memorial Day, it is important for the nation to realize that new reality. It is important to remember that while every service member life lost during times of combat is a victim of war, not all are victims of enemy fire and yet the loss is the same. In recognition of that, Congressman Boswell authored the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, which was signed into law in 2007 to provide critical support and mental health services to service members and veterans.
The law is needed. Today more active duty soldiers lose their lives to suicide than to combat. And the impact of war extends far beyond any war itself. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, every 65 minutes a veteran takes his or her own life. The majority of non-active duty veteran suicides were by those age 50 and older.
“It is, perhaps, overstated but freedom isn’t free,” Boswell continued. “All of our freedoms and privileges are because there are those among us who will risk all. We call them veterans. On this Memorial Day, thank a veteran, both current and older.”
On Monday, Memorial Day, the U.S. Flag will be briskly raised to the tops of staffs and then slowly lowered to half-staff in recognition of the more than one million American lives given to the defense of this nation. It is a day to remember them because it is too late to thank them personally. The day also provides an opportunity to thank those who served and are currently serving.
At 10 a.m. on Memorial Day, Sun City Center will hold their annual ceremony to honor the fallen, with volunteers standing in place of those who have passed since last year. The ceremony will include veterans from World War II to the Iraq War. The event will be held at the Borini Theater at Kings Point, doors will open at 9 a.m. with guests requested to be seated by 9:45 a.m. The ceremony provides an opportunity to not only honor those who are gone but to thank those who are still among us, bringing the full measure of meaning back to Memorial Day. It is not just a day off from work or the kickoff to summer; it is a day to remember and to appreciate those who paid the ultimate price for freedom, as well as those who were willing to do so.
Barbecues and Memorial Day are as American as apple pie. But before firing up the grill, make the drive to Sun City Center to remember and honor those who made the day possible. On this one day, coming together as the world’s most diverse and powerful nation is the greatest honor left to give.