Jolene Ryan, Speech, 5/30/2016, Riverside National Cemetery
Approximately 319 million people live in the United States, and a great number of them don’t grasp what today means. Kids and adults across America think of Memorial Day as just another day off of school or work. A lot of them don’t completely understand that this day is meant to honor the ultimate sacrifices that men and women of our armed forces have made for our freedom;for the liberties we enjoy and for our way of life. Memorial day is intended to thank those who laid down their lives for the sake of the things we hold dear. It is a day to pay respect to all the American veterans in our history that gave up their tomorrows so we may have today.
The origin of Memorial Day all depends on what stories you hear and which ones you want to believe, but one thing for sure is that it was called Decoration Day first. In the days of the Civil War and afterward, soldiers’ graves were often decorated with flowers. However, it was more of a local observation than a national one. One of the first major Decoration Days was celebrated on May 30, 1868 when future president James Garfield gave a speech to some 5,000 people at Arlington National Cemetery. The first use of the term “Memorial Day” is reported to have taken place in 1882, but it was not universally used or accepted.
Over the years, the United States has found herself involved in more conflicts across the globe, and Americans were asked to put themselves in harm’s way, sometimes four ourselves and sometimes for those who could not do it for themselves. Finally in 1964, Memorial Day became an official national holiday, to be celebrated across the country on the last Monday in May and to honor those who never returned home.
Coming from a military background, I know that on Memorial Day nothing makes a veteran more proud than people flying their flags and celebrating the ones that sacrificed their lives. My dad served in the Army for four and a half years and every Memorial Day I reflect and think that I am so lucky that he got to return home as many people are not that fortunate. As I stand before you all today and we are surrounded by many headstones, I am reminded that America is fortunate to have so many brave men and women in our country. I reflect on books and movies about veterans stories and although it caused pain and suffering in their lives most have no regrets. I had the pleasure of taking part in King High Remembers this year at my school and met a very special individual by the name of John Clime. Mr. Clime was a radio operator in Vietnam. He told my partner and I in our interview that he doesn’t regret anything about going in the service and he would do it all again.
Now despite what I said about so many people truly don’t understand what this day itself is all about, the truth is we really celebrate Memorial Day every day. We hear that celebration in the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. We see the honoring of their sacrifice when we vote. When I sit in everyone of my classes, I experience a sense of thanks that I have been given a free public education.
Every time we speak out against tyranny or injustice we are celebrating Memorial Day. When the flag goes up the pole every day, it’s Memorial Day. And besides the celebration of this day, how do we pay these brave people back? We do it by preserving their sacrifice in our memories; by taking advantage of the liberties given to us to be the best we can be as a nation and as individuals ; by taking up the responsibility of leadership and by facing down the enemies that would see us fail.
So in going back to the question – why do we celebrate Memorial Day? I am not saying that people should not have huge barbecues and family and friends over. I am saying as you do it, think about the freedom you have and appreciate that other people have sacrificed their lives so that we may live freely. We celebrate this day because this day tells us who we are as Americans – and it pays tribute to, as Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg address, “those who gave the last true measure of devotion so that their nation might live.” That’s why we celebrate Memorial Day.