Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd president, who served during the Civil War as a brigadier general of 10th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland, once said of what we now call Memorial Day: “I have never been able to think of the day as one of mourning; I have never quite been able to feel that half-masted flags were appropriate on Decoration Day. I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak, because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it. We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what they did.”
On May 5, 1866, the village of Waterloo, New York, was decorated with flags at half mast, draped with evergreens and mourning black to praise the living Union veterans of the Civil War and to remember the patriotic dead. Veterans, civic societies and residents, led by Gen. John B. Murray, marched to the village cemeteries and placed flowers on the graves of those who gave their lives during the war. Thus began the first Memorial Day observance.
Since that time, Decoration Day, as it was once known, has evolved to include remembrances for American veterans from both the North and South, veterans from both World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Iraq, Afghanistan and every conflict in between. This holiday, which once was a sober event, now marks the unofficial beginning of summer and includes barbeques, picnics, concerts, parties and fireworks.
I challenge you to look inside your hearts to find the true meaning of the word “memorial.” What is a memorial but a fitting tribute intended to celebrate the memory and honor of a person? And how shall we celebrate the men and women who dedicated their lives to freedom? Should we hang our heads and weep? Should we be quiet and reserved? Or should we celebrate their sacrifice for the nation?
Gen. George S. Patton said: “That is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.” To that I say, respect and rejoice in the courage of these patriots, respect and rejoice in the steel in the spine of every service member, and respect and rejoice in the selfless actions of these brave men and women who thought themselves ordinary but rose to meet seemingly impossible expectations to keep hope and freedom alive, not just in America, but throughout the world.
Respect and celebrate the warriors who not only used their strength to defeat their enemies, but were also generous and compassionate custodians of liberty who help rebuild countries, write constitutions and pave the way toward democracy. They did not fight to conquer the world, but to liberate it.
Rejoice that they lived to become our greatest teachers. Their actions, their virtues and their deeds serve as life’s most important lessons. Rejoice that their children and their children’s children are free and have learned from their example the value of sacrifice, hard work and honor. Celebrate their love of country and their love of their fellow man. Let us remember their excellence, their heroism, and their dedication to the ideals of life and liberty for all people. Respect these citizens who taught us what it truly means not only to be an American, but to be a citizen of the world.
Respect the brave Americans serving throughout this world. Though they are far from home, let us remember them on this day and celebrate their courage, sacrifice and hope of the families who proudly support those who lift and wave freedom’s banner. Celebrate that these strong families are here, because it is for them and their future that these patriots serve.
Celebrate the hope that veterans have given the world for its future. For it is not as sad and hopeless people that we come together in remembrance, but as strong, determined, optimistic, free people who cherish the lives of our service members and look to the future and envision a better world. Rejoice in this eternal hope.
Mr. McLeese is civilian aide to the secretary of the Army for South Carolina. He also serves as president and CEO of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.