MAY 28, 2001
Please, just say 'Thanks'
© 2001

Thirty years ago, Carmella LaSpada was a young volunteer in a military hospital when she promised a severely wounded soldier to always remember the suffering and sacrifice.

Carmella has kept her promise. First she founded No Greater Love, a non-profit organization that has ministered to thousands of families mourning the slain or the captured. And then, last year, she successfully pushed for the Memorial Day ''National Moment of Remembrance,'' which was christened by Congress.

During the moment, which occurs at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day, the measure says all Americans should stop and remember the deaths of those who fought beneath the nation's flag.

She said, ''I want us to contemplate those things that bind us together. The legacy of those who died to make this country better is something that can strengthen us, unite us.''

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. There are over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo, N.Y., was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, but it's difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day.

General John Logan officially proclaimed Memorial Day on May 5, 1868, in his General Order No. 11, and it was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. It is now celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress in 1968 to ensure a three-day weekend for federal holidays).

And President George W. Bush recently noted, "America has been given so much, but of all our assets, resources and strengths, none have counted for more than the courage of young soldiers in the face of battle."

"We are in their debt -- more than a lifetime of Memorial Days could ever repay," he said. "With their sacrifice comes a duty that will go on through the generations to honor them in our thoughts, in our words and in our lives."

I confess, I tend to wax philosophic more on Memorial Day than most of my contemporaries. Metcalfs have taken up arms starting with Michael Metcalf in 1676 (a hundred years before Burgess Metcalf fought in the War for Independence). I had ancestors imprisoned at Andersonville and Libby in the Civil War. My great grandfather fought with General Pershing in Mexico and my father flew B-17s in WWII. I lost dear friends and comrades in Vietnam who never had my opportunity to grow gray hair and raise a son.

I remember at Fort Benning in the early '70s, as a young second lieutenant driving on post in the early evening, a cannon would announce the striking of the colors and everyone on post would stop. Cars would stop and drivers would get out, face toward Infantry Hall and (if in uniform) salute until the music faded. Kids would stop playing baseball and stand quietly with their hands on their hearts until the flag was lowered and then life would resume.

Those brief daily moments of respect, courtesy and honor were routine but very special. I often wonder if those same simple but important things happen today.

When LaSpada's push for remembrance started prior to Memorial Day in 1996, she reportedly questioned the spirit of the holiday, wondering if Americans were at all concerned with remembering.

She asked some kids playing in Washington's Lafayette Park what Memorial Day meant to them. They giggled and told her it was the day the swimming pool opened.

Carmella had an epiphany. ''It really hit me that for many people, the day is more about getting to sleep-in late, have a picnic or relax than it is about remembering the grave suffering many Americans endured."

For me Memorial Day is about remembering friends and family who have served in uniform -- both those who survived and those who did not. They paid a price measured in time, separation, conflict, immeasurable fear, blood and death so that their families and countrymen might enjoy freedom and liberty. Their sacrifice was not form over substance but rather substance to support form. Duty, Honor and Country are not just words to those who have served the republic.

Alexis de Tocqueville once observed, "America is great because America is good. ..." Our greatness was -- and can again -- be ratified by goodness. However, when America stops being good, it will cease to be great.

Most of you who have heard of Audie Murphy remember the handsome actor who was a Medal of Honor Recipient. He wrote a poem I feel is significant -- especially today:

Dusty old helmet, rusty old gun,
They sit in the corner and wait --
Two souvenirs of the Second World War
That have withstood the time, and the hate.

Mute witness to a time of much trouble.
Where kill or be killed was the law --
Were these implements used with high honor?
What was the glory they saw?

Many times I've wanted to ask them --
And now that we're here all alone,
Relics all three of a long ago war --
Where has freedom gone?

Freedom flies in your heart like an eagle.
Let it soar with the winds high above
Among the spirits of soldiers now sleeping,
Guard it with care and with love.

I salute my old friends in the corner,
I agree with all they have said --
And if the moment of truth comes tomorrow,
I'll be free, or By God, I'll be dead!

Where has freedom gone? Who will guard it and care for it with love? How many remain or are yet to come who will embrace the essence of "Duty, Honor, Country"? Who is left in this fast food, MTV, instant gratification outcome-based nightmare that can still understand -- let alone embrace -- the ideal of "death before dishonor"? And if, as Murphy asks, "the moment of truth comes tomorrow," who is left to defend freedom and liberty? Who among us has the courage and resolve to not only say, "I'll be free, or By God, I'll be dead!" but would actually stand before evil and spit in his eye?

Today is Memorial Day. Please take a moment to at least acknowledge and remember that better men and women than us have bought us the luxury of freedom and liberty with their blood and sacrificed their futures for future generations. It is right that we acknowledge that. And while you're at it, please tell any veteran you might encounter, "Thanks for your service."