Why We Observe Memorial Day

Why We Observe Memorial Day
Arlington National Cemetery

America observes Memorial Day on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the United States military.  Some may remember it by its original name—Decoration Day.  Major General John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. It's believed that the fourth Monday in May was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the United States.  Although Memorial Day originated after the Civil War, it didn't become a national holiday until 1971.

In 1868, the first large observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.  This recognition continues today.  

Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas, and author of Sacred Duty: A Soldier's Tour at Arlington National Cemetery, explains service in The Old Guard during a speech delivered at Hillsdale College.  Every headstone at Arlington tells a story—tales of this nation’s heroes. 

The 3rd U.S. infantry regiment, or The Old Guard is literally the oldest active-duty infantry regiment in the Army, dating back to 1784--three years older than even the U. S. Constitution. 

It was after World War II that the Army assigned its oldest unit to Arlington, its most sacred ground.  In 1948 The Old Guard became the Army’s ceremonial unit and official escort to the president.  But one mission takes priority above all else—military-honor funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.  

One of the duties of The Old Guard is placing a flag at every grave site—more than two hundred thousand of them. Soldiers pull miniature American flags out of their assault packs and push it three inches into the ground at the heel of their boot.  The flags must be exactly vertical and perpendicular to the headstone. Once a row is started, the soldier must complete that row, otherwise different boot sizes might disrupt the perfect symmetry of the headstones and flags.

As soldiers plant the flags, they come level with the lettering on the marble headstones.  Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Medal of Honor.  Soldiers pause, come to attention and salute Medal of Honor recipients—the nation’s highest decoration for battlefield valor.  In just a few hours a flag is placed at every grave and “Mission Complete” is called over the radio.

Soldiers are trained extensively to provide no-fail, zero-defect missions.  The Old Guard’s standards remain the same, whether it’s a president or a private first-class.  While the guard often performs more than 20 funerals a day, for the fallen and the family, each funeral is a once-in-a-lifetime moment that was a lifetime in the making.

Nothing interferes with The Old Guard’s mission at Arlington—not even 9/11.  When American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, it blasted debris into the southeastern corner of Arlington National Cemetery.  The Old Guard’s Medical Platoon rushed to the scene, yet the funerals that day continued uninterrupted.

Arlington is not the only site of The Old Guard’s mission to honor our nation’s fallen.  Since the earliest days of the Iraq War, The Old Guard has performed the dignified transfer of remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where our nation’s fallen soldiers return home for the last time--including most recently Utah's Maj. Brent Taylor of the Utah National Guard who was killed in 2018 while serving in Afghanistan.

The Old Guard stands ready whether it’s in the middle of the night, or in a blizzard they will be there at Dover to honor them.  Senator Cotton said, “Most Americans have seen the iconic photographs of flag-draped cases at Dover; few have stood among them on that windy ramp.  But Old Guard soldiers have.  We’ve stood alone in the cargo hold, inspecting flags for the slightest deficiencies.  We’ve strained with a heavy case of a fallen soldier still in full combat gear, packed in ice.  We’ve felt the lightweight cases of the dissociated remains of a soldier killed by an improvised bomb.  We’ve saluted from the airplane as the remains were driven away to be prepared for the return to their family.

"We go to great lengths to recover fallen comrades, we honor them in the most precise and exacting ceremonies, we set aside national holidays to remember and celebrate them.  We do these things for them, of course, but also for us, the living.  Their stories of heroism, of sacrifice, and of patriotism remind us what is best in ourselves, and they teach our children what is best in America.”

Did you know each year on Memorial Day a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time?  While many Americans celebrate Memorial Day as the "unofficial start of summer" with BBQ's and family gatherings, we would do well to pause and remember, with reverence and appreciation, those who have fought and are fighting to preserve our freedoms at home and abroad.  

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Tom Cotton, U.S. Senator from Arkansas, Author, Sacred Duty:  A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery.



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