Memorial Day’s Long Bright Shadow

I am a Marine Veteran of Iraq.

I have watched young brave heroes breathe their last heartbreaking breath thousands of miles away from home. This ultimate sacrifice is a heavy price to pay for our freedom, but it’s one we recognize as worth it in order to preserve and defend the promise of American freedom and democratic principles.

However, since becoming a Marine, I’ve observed a seemingly minor but common mistake people make every Memorial Day. Well-meaning folks heap their grateful thanks on living veterans rather than memorializing the fallen. Some veterans will inform the ignorant of their error. Most will politely grin and bear it – accepting the genuine appreciation at face value. But mark my word – all veterans know the difference.

So while you’ll get no scolding indignation out of me, as long as some people mistake Memorial Day as a day to honor all members of the military, I will find myself asking the same seemingly hopeless question. What if nobody got it wrong? What if everyone got it right and spent Memorial Day paying proper homage to the fallen?

What Memorial Day Isn’t

Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day. Veterans Day is a November holiday set aside to thank and honor ALL those who served honorably in the military – in wartime or peacetime. You could have been a Marine that stormed the streets of Fallujah or a Sailor whose job it was to push paper and send faxes, but the commemoration is the same. At some point in your life, you had the nerve to throw on the uniform and were willing to play Russian roulette with time and history. So when Veteran’s Day rolls around this upcoming November feel free to thank a veteran for their service.

The Tragedy That Separates the Two

We never know when war is going to strike, but this nation needs a force ready to answer the call when it comes. War is a random affair. All across America, young men and women enlisted on September 10th, 2001, completely oblivious to what the 11th would mean for them and for the world. Today, one squad patrols one street while a second squad patrols another. Depending on which street you get, your life could end.

Those who have experienced it will never forget the snap and crack of a bullet flying overhead. Whether by providence or just the poor aim of the enemy, when the bullet doesn’t hit you, you simply press on and do your job in the midst of it. There are certainly courageous moments where men and women in death-defying gallantry manage to evade death, but for the most part those who fight war would prefer to survive it and eventually make their way home.

What Memorial Day Is

Memorial Day is more sacred than Veteran’s Day. It’s more sacred than any other patriotic holiday. Memorial Day, in all of its sunshiney picnic-filled glory, casts a long and dark shadow that we’re asked to observe and respect. Memorial Day honors all of those who will never again hear a “thanks for your service,” will never get a free Veteran’s meal at Applebees, and will never see their families again. In honors the courageous fallen who stepped up to serve and let pride and duty trump nervous fear and a deep longing for home that is unrequited.

Honor the Fallen

Whether you realize it or not, living Veterans often feel guilty enough for having survived a war in lieu of their buddies. So it shouldn’t surprise you that we would prefer not to be thanked on a day marked for those left behind. We both wanted to survive, but yet this Memorial Day I’m eating a steak while they rest 6-feet under.

So How Should We Honor Them?

Fortunately, the best and most noble Memorial Day observance doesn’t require putting on black sackcloth along with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Rather, it can be remarkably simple.

Celebrating Memorial Day in bright sunshiney picnic-filled glory is really just it. Live life to the fullest. Make it bright and awesome! I believe those who lost their lives protecting our freedom would love nothing better than to know that such freedom includes our continued ability to take the day off work and BBQ. While some lament the failure of so many Americans to recall the true purpose of Memorial Day, if the dead were alive today, I doubt they’d turn down a day off work to grill meat and laugh with loved ones.

I believe the greatest honor we can give the fallen is to lend words, say a prayer, or offer a toast to the fallen as we make Memorial Day bright and joyful. Better yet, take a minute to educate your kids why they get the day off school. For extra credit, find the graves of local fallen and place a flag or flowers down in grateful recognition of their sacrifice.


Jeff Edwards is an awesome blogger, better known for writing “A blog about stuff” called Unprecedented Mediocrity. He is a guest contributor to Estate Map, and while he is not going to be one who tells you to live a boring Memorial Day, he must admit that all these Memorial Day sales bother him a bit. He asks that we honor the dead with kind words, fond remembrance, and a toast to honor the day they gifted to the living.