from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

On Memorial Day

May 29, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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On August 1, 1888, Congress passed a joint resolution (25 Stat. 516) that recognized every May 30 as “Decoration Day,” a holiday for the District of Columbia and a holiday with pay for federal employees “so that they might not suffer loss of wages by reason of joining in paying their respects to the memory of those who died in the service of their country.” In 1968, Congress passed Public Law 90-363, which established what had gradually became known as “Memorial Day” to fall on the last Monday in May. Thus, all federal workers and most private employees will not have to work tomorrow. For many Americans, Memorial Day has become indistinct from the nine other federal holidays that are statutorily mandated every year.

However, it is worth taking the time tomorrow to remember the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Coast Guard who have died carrying out their duties on behalf of the United States. In America’s recent conflicts, the tragic toll has been smaller in number when compared to the wars of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, yet each family that loses a son or daughter suffers the same. Since March 2003, fully 4,454 U.S. servicemembers have died while deployed to the Iraqi combat theater. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan the number of servicemember fatalities has increased each year for the past four years to 1,595.  The Department of Defense confirms the deaths of servicemembers via a press release in the “News Releases” section of the Pentagon’s website. The latest such grim notice appeared Saturday night to announce the deadliest day for U.S. military personnel since April 27, when a veteran Afghan pilot shot and killed eight U.S. troops and an American civilian contractor after an argument at the Kabul International Airport:

"The Department of Defense announced today the deaths of six soldiers who were supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. They died May 26 of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked their unit with an improvised explosive device in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.  They were assigned to the 4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Ky.  Killed were:

1st Lt. John M. Runkle, 27, of West Salem, Ohio;

Staff Sgt. Edward D. Mills Jr., 29, of New Castle, Pa.;

Staff Sgt. Ergin V. Osman, 35, of Jacksonville, N.C.;

Sgt. Thomas A. Bohall, 25, of Bel Aire, Kan.;

Sgt. Louie A. Ramos Velazquez, 39, of Camuy, Puerto Rico; and

Spc. Adam J. Patton, 21, of Port Orchard, Wash."

There are many Memorial Day celebrations on Monday—as well as volunteer opportunities throughout the year—to remember the fallen and their families. If you live in Washington, D.C., the National Memorial Day Parade (“presented by Boeing”) begins on the corner of Constitution Ave. and 7th St., NW, at 2:00 p.m.  In New York City, the 82nd Annual Little Neck-Douglaston Memorial Day Parade begins Northern Blvd and Jayson St in Great Neck, Queens, also at 2:00 p.m. Wherever you are, you can also pay tribute to servicemembers who sacrificed their lives by pausing for just one minute of prayer or remembrance at 3:00 p.m. local time, which has been the National Moment of Remembrance since December 2000.

In addition, there are numerous ways to begin to honor the service and sacrifices of those veterans and servicemembers we encounter every day. I have found that nothing beats a sincere “thank you,” and a willingness to listen to the experiences of those who served at home or abroad.  Small and unexpected acts of kindness are also greatly appreciated. Last summer, I was eating dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant in Georgetown, when a young Army Soldier, wearing his camouflage battle dress uniform, entered and sat alone at a table in the corner. Upon leaving, I asked the hostess if I could pay for the Soldier’s dinner. She told me not to worry, because every other table had already volunteered to do so. I have heard similar anecdotes from friends and colleagues in the armed forces, and they are grateful every time. However insufficient a gesture, it is the least we can do to honor them.

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