A Memorial Day History Lesson & Programs That Honor Our Military


From l, Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise host the Memorial Day Concert.

As a veteran of more than four years in the U.S. Army, I look forward to Memorial Day (May 28), just as I do July 4, Flag Day, etc. All are reminders of time spent in service, and the reason for the holidays. The current members of the military, the veterans, and their families are the true patriots, and the ones we should honor this coming holiday weekend.

But how sad and ironic it is every year, as we canvas the neighborhoods looking for our flags (many made in China) flying on Memorial Day, to spot precious few. My hope is that everyone who reads this will dust off Old Glory and fly it proudly, and most of all, remember the fallen.

Although historians have various accounts of the origin of the holiday, one of the earliest stories from 1862 is about a group that wanted to honor the nation’s Civil War dead. In Washington, D.C. a gathering of women, mostly widows, were seen decorating the graves of those who fought on both sides of the war. More citizens joined them, and the tradition began. The day became known as Decoration Day.

It was meant to heal the nation, after brother fought against brother, friend against friend, on American soil. So devastating was the Civil War that more Americans were killed in that conflict than in any other war, including World War II.

On April 19, 1866, Gen. Jonathan Logan led Illinois’ first veterans’ memorial service, and today there is a plaque declaring that to be the first location of a Decoration Day ceremony. Many communities started having their own local ceremonies, and in 1882 that day was officially renamed Memorial Day, to honor the military and the memory of all Americans who died in service to their country.

For those who can not make it to the various local ceremonies around town, PBS will air its annual 23rd National Memorial Day Concert “A Night of Remembrance” on Sunday, May 27. Set in the nation’s capitol, it is always a powerful tribute with many of our service men and women on hand to tell their stories. Once again Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise will host the show from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Both Sinise (CSI: New York) and Mantegna (Criminal Minds) deserve credit for their dedication to veteran’s causes and supporting our troops in active service.

The concert will be broadcast to our troops around the world with General Colin Powell, Daughtry, Natalie Cole, Trace Adkins, Selma Blair, Ellen Burstyn, renowned tenor Russell Watson, and Dennis Franz part of the all-star line-up. Some will sing with the National Symphony Orchestra. Others will read letters from past and present G.I.s. Mantegna said, “Every one of those stories of remembrance is important to us.”

There will also be encore airings of Ken Burns’ The War series, so check your PBS listings. The seven-part documentary skillfully followed the history and horror of WWII from the perspective of ordinary men and women whose heroic efforts won the war.

Equally powerful in its storytelling about today’s wounded warriors is the Independent Lens film Hell and Back Again, airing Memorial Day, May 28. Oscar nominated for Best Documentary, it presents the overlapping stories of a Marine at war, and the struggles of the same Marine in recovery at home.

“Memorial Day is a time for reflection on the sacrifice and service of veterans and their families,” said John F. Wilson, chief programming executive for PBS. “We hope that all Americans will take time to remember and honor these real-life heroes who serve our country every day.” Yes, indeed.

Remember, you can still attend the weekend barbeques and sales, but the meaning behind Memorial Day shouldn’t stray too far from your thoughts. Because of the wars there are so many who are not around to enjoy the occasion. As a former Master Sergeant (who turned down a commission), I salute them.

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