Today, as we join friends and families at festive Memorial Day occasions filled with food and fellowship, with American flags and bunting as backdrop, I ask that we visualize someone who touched us and died in combat in a part of the world that heretofore meant nothing to us. That person may be an ancestor, known only through family lore.
Memorial Day forces us to pause every year to think about family members and friends who either did not return from war, or returned maimed either physically or mentally. While I realize that Veterans Day provides an occasion to honor the former military members living among us, I believe we can never express our gratitude enough, not only to those buried in military or private cemeteries— but also to those who served, lost buddies and still cope with wrenching memories and invisible emotional pain.
It’s proper to mourn the loss of innocence and idealism; the burial is internal, the suffering lifelong.
When our precious American flag is given during a funeral service to a spouse as gratitude for service, folded neatly according to tradition, and when taps is played as a mournful farewell, ever so precisely, I feel deeply the loss of a young man or woman. Our nation has always been fortunate to call upon its youth to step forward and face numbing fear and deadly combat.
Words spoken today at ceremonies throughout our nation are often the same: they pay homage to soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guard members. They remind us of people who served and died, cutting short the lives of mostly the young. Speakers implore us to feel thankful to the dead and remember they never came home to bands and parades.
A well-known poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written during World War I by a Canadian doctor and lieutenant colonel, John McCrae, in remembrance of lives lost in Flanders, Belgium, poignantly and powerfully calls upon all of us never to forget. It reads as follows:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The dead call out to us to remember, to appreciate the damage wreaked by the violence of war, to understand that the poppies continue to symbolize life and the continued presence of those buried in former killing fields.
The message of war doesn’t fade. Bravery is hallowed. We owe gratitude to those who “Loved and were loved” and now live in cemeteries and in the hearts of friends and family.
The torch is passed.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.