Memorial Day: Not Just a Day But a State of Mind


The Air Force officer stood at the podium during the Memorial Day service, recounting the story of the young Marine Corps special operator from the Traverse City area who had lost his life during an operation in Afghanistan. The speaker, a young man himself and the father to four children, discussed the indescribable pain the family must have felt upon learning of their loved one’s death.

The speaker went on to explain, however, that the fallen Marine’s family drew comfort from the fact that their loved one died doing exactly what he was meant to do. This was his moment, his opportunity to put his training to work in service of his country. He died so that others could be free.

As I sat there I watched our three girls play in the grass, too young to comprehend the issues of life and death, war and peace being discussed. What lessons and values, I thought, did the fallen Marine’s parents instill in him to give him the clarity of purpose to join the service at 19 years old? To write a blank check to his country, payable up to and including his life? This young man volunteered not in spite of the risk, but because of it. Upon learning of young men his age dying overseas, he raised his own hand.

This story is not remarkable because it is unique. It is remarkable because it is commonplace.

Young men and women all over the country continue to volunteer to serve and risk it all. Tens of thousands sign up to fight – and many times re-enlist to fight again and again. They ask, selflessly and unflinchingly, as generations before them have as well, “If not us, who?”. These are the unseen sacrifices, the hard choices that ensure our freedom.

I don’t have many regrets in my life – after all, I’m where I am today because of the decisions and actions, both good and bad, that make up the patchwork of my life. But I do regret never serving my country. I remember clearly sitting in my comfortable law firm office on the 21st floor of a high-rise building in Chicago, post 9/11, thinking about all of the reasons why I could not volunteer. I was newly married. I had law school debt. We had just moved to Chicago. In other words, lots of rationalizations.

It’s water under the bridge, and I don’t beat myself up about it, but it’s a regret that I try not to suppress so that I never forget to honor the memory of those who had the courage to do what I did not. They gave their all and we draw strength from their sacrifices.

This Memorial Day post is a day late, but that’s kind of the point. A survey by the national World War II Museum a few years back revealed that 80% of Americans were unfamiliar with Memorial Day’s real meaning. What a shame.

Freedom is a fragile thing. It’s a radical concept in the course of human history, much of which is marked by suffering and oppression. Memorial Day serves as an opportunity to make the abstract come into focus. We are all conscious of the “heroes” who fight for us, but rarely do we have the opportunity to peel back the mask and see the humanity, the pain, the toll, and the price that is being paid.

In that sense, Memorial Day lays bare the civilian/military divide in this country. For most Memorial Day marks the start of summer. For others, a much smaller population of warriors and their families, it’s a day of pain and grief.

Now that the cookouts are over, the ceremonies are done, and the swimming pools are open, it’s more important than ever to remember those who have fallen so that we may live freely.

As May turns into June let’s do our collective best to honor the fallen throughout the year and not just on one day. Let’s focus on making our families, our communities, and our country better. Let’s teach our kids (and remember ourselves) to ignore the inconsequential, the petty and the trivial, and aspire to the values that embody military service: dedication, sacrifice, selflessness. Let’s make Memorial Day not just a day, but a state of mind. It’s the least we can do for those who sacrificed everything.

LifeJay Harrington