Memorial Day’s roots can be informally traced back to May 1868, first known as Decoration Day. The holiday was meant to be a time for Americans to consider the sacrifice of those who died in the Civil War, also as a day of remembrance and national unity. Bear in mind, then-president Lincoln was assassinated just a few years earlier in 1865. Understandably, the late 1860s was a time when national unity was sorely needed.
But the tradition wouldn’t take on its more modern shape until after WWII. Perhaps by coincidence or design, the official holiday of “Memorial Day” was federally recognized in 1967. At the same time, U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalating and the Civil Rights Movement was transforming the nation.
Today, Memorial Day has become more synonymous with used-car sales and bad traffic as opposed to its true meaning.
So on this Memorial Day, contrary to earlier ones in recent memory, consider the men and women who died while serving in the armed forces and the sheer magnitude of their sacrifice.
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), approximately 1.3 million men and women have sacrificed their lives serving the military from the American Revolution to December 23, 2014. Keep in mind the 1.3 million figure doesn’t include tens of thousands of active and retired military personnel who lose their battles against depression and other illnesses to suicide every year.
At a time when less than 0.5 percent of the U.S. population is in the armed services, it’s easy to see why the original meaning of Memorial Day may seem unappreciated. The United States has asked a lot of its men and women in uniform over 14 years at war – half of them spent in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Let this be the Memorial Day that doesn’t pass without reflecting on the fact that so many people across so many generations were willing to risk their lives for their country. It, quite literally, is the least we can do.