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Why Memorial Day Matters


Americans come together this weekend for a tribute to acknowledge those who have given their lives to preserve the freedom we enjoy on a daily basis. Flowers and flags adorn graves, and the somber bugle notes of Taps fill the air.

Beyond this public display lies the individual motivations of those who answer the nation’s call.

“You will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it,” former President John Adams said.

We start the summer barbeque season with the zeal of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon. Yet, the majority of Americans still have a misconception of the meaning behind Memorial Day.

Gallup found in 2000 that only 28% of Americans understood the original intent of the holiday that Congress established nationwide in 1971. Surely the decades of combat casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan would revitalize the understanding of this holiday.

That is not the case. After the deaths of over 14,000 U.S. personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001-2021, little has changed in that understanding. A OnePoll survey in 2020 found that only 43% of Americans understood the significance of Memorial Day. This represents a meager 15% increase over 20 years of observing deaths in combat.

Military servicemembers who died in combat had grand life goals. Some of them wanted to be firemen and never got to put out a fire in their town. Some wanted to get married and never even saw the aisle. Some wanted to own a dog but never got to go pick out a puppy. Some wanted to be teachers and never had the chance to stand tall in front of a classroom.

French philosopher Joseph Joubert once said, “To teach is to learn twice.” Teaching first starts with the family, well before students enter formal education. Kids learn at an early age to mimic what those older do around them, at times making some good submission material for America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Parents can learn alongside their kids about the meaning of Memorial Day. If parents know little to nothing about the holiday, find a local tribute ceremony online or in the local paper.

A simple search for Memorial Day tributes near your home will provide a number of places to attend a public observance.

If you don’t know what is happening at a ceremony, ask someone. Asking a person wearing a veterans hat what the holiday means to that person would be a great start. Most veterans will be open to share what military service has meant to them, and potentially add what sacrifices were paid by those serving on their left and right in combat.

Veterans stand proud to serve our Constitution and the American people.

A simple question and desire to learn has such power to change a generation. In the case of Memorial Day, it’s the best thing we can do to honor those who helped to preserve our freedom.

Jeremy L. Williams, Ph.D. is a medical officer serving in the U.S. Army Reserve and an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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