I will resume the blog posts related to my two books Silver Taps and Palo Duro next week, but today my thoughts are on honoring those who in President Lincoln’s words gave “the last full measure of devotion” (their lives) fighting America’s wars.
The long holiday weekend that marked the beginning of summer saw countless Americans fire up the backyard grill, head to the pool or beach, and celebrate with family and friends. Few headed to our nation’s cemeteries in observance of the national holiday. Fewer still looked at their watches or clocks at 3:00 PM to observe a moment of silence in honor of our war dead. The solemnity of the day was born by those currently serving in the Armed Forces; veterans – especially those who shared the horrors of war, its hardships, common hopes and fears with fellow service members who did not come home; military families – mothers and fathers, wives or husbands, sons or daughters, sisters or brothers extended family members who lost a loved one; or members of our national, state and local governments whose duties require their presence and participation.
The history behind the holiday is known only to those who consciously choose to study it. Its genesis goes back to May 1868 when General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Union’s veterans group, the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree that May 30th should be a nationwide commemoration of the more than 625,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War.
The day was called “Decoration Day” for the decorative flower arrangements placed on the graves of the fallen, and for more than fifty years it acknowledged only those killed in the Civil War. However, the United States entry into WWI began the transition to remember all of the country’s war dead, and gradually the holiday became known as Memorial Day. In 1968 the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” moved the observance from May 30th to the last Monday in May, with Memorial Day becoming an official federal holiday in 1971.
The cost of America’s wars continues to be staggering: WWI – 116,516, WWII – 405,399, Korea – 36,516, Vietnam -58,209, Iraq – 4,489, and Afghanistan – 2,356 (these numbers fluctuate by source, and by the loss of additional service members in ongoing conflicts.)
The price of freedom is born by only a small fraction of our society. The Veterans Administration estimates that only 7.3 percent of all living Americans have ever served in the military, and over half of those are over the age 60. Compulsory military service (the draft) ended January 27, 1973.
Given that the current population of the United States is roughly 326 million, and of that total 1.4 million men and women currently wear the uniform, only .04 percent of our total population safeguards the freedoms we enjoy.
That all volunteer force, in the words of Lt. General Dana T. Atkins, USAF (Retired,) president of the Military Officers Association of America, represents the “unbroken line, an enduring thread of honor, commitment and dedication.” They carry on a proud tradition embodied in their willingness and that of past generations to lay down their lives in defense of our values and way of life. As a people, we venerate them on Armed Forces Day just as we recognize past service on Veterans Day. Let us do no less to remember those that died. Theirs is a debt we can never repay.