Each year, on the last Monday in May, we celebrate Memorial Day and the unofficial start of summer. We traditionally light up the grill, dip our toes in the pool, enjoy time in the sunshine, or some take trips to the Jersey Shore.
But often, lost amid the hamburgers and potato salad and first dips in the pool or ocean, is the true meaning of Memorial Day.
Established as a federal holiday 50 years ago, Memorial Day is set aside to honor the sacrifice of the members of all branches of our armed forces who gave their lives, both home and abroad, to defend our freedom and the American way of life.
Originally known as Decoration Day, this springtime holiday originated in the late 1860s in response to the loss of thousands of American service members during the Civil War, which ended in April 1865. Each spring, Americans held tributes to fallen soldiers and visited cemeteries to decorate their graves. The name was changed to Memorial Day in 1971 when it officially became a federal holiday to honor all service members who gave their lives fighting in all wars.
Nowadays, in honor of Memorial Day, the president of the United States places a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in Arlington Cemetery. Dedicated to all service members from all branches of the U.S. armed forces who were killed in war, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has three Greek figures written on it to represent Valor, Peace and Victory.
Etched on the back of the tomb is an inscription which reads: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
Another Memorial Day tradition is the display of the American flag across America. The flag is flown at half-staff until noon and then raised to full staff until sunset. When the flag is flown at half-staff it signifies remembrance of those service members who died for our country, for the rest of the day it flies to show support for all living veterans.
On Memorial Day we not only need to remember those who have fought and died for us, we must also remember the sacrifices of the families these brave service members left behind. The families need to know that their loved ones will never be forgotten, and that their sacrifices have kept America safe.
There are ways we can pay tribute to those who have given their lives for our country, including showing our support for those veterans who are still with us and who can use our assistance. Many service members return home and have difficulty finding medical assistance, jobs, and homes for their families.
Support organizations such as the Vietnam Veterans of America, the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, the VFW, the Veterans of Korean War, and the Wounded Warrior Program. These organizations provide veterans with services upon their return to civilian life, including medical services, educational training and career opportunities, and support for housing.
Another way to honor the service and sacrifice of our military veterans and their families is by taking the time to say, “thank you for your service,” and to listen to their stories about their experiences serving in the military. These simple signs of respect show our veterans that we appreciate everything they have done to preserve our freedom and way of life.
This year, as we do every year, we give thanks to all service members from all branches of the armed forces. May God bless them and may God bless the United States of America.
Ronald G. Rios is the director of the Middlesex County Board of Commissioners. He submits a monthly column to Newspaper Media Group.