Memorial Day is not happy, and it’s not Veterans Day
We need a new way to honor Gold Star families
Three years ago on Memorial Day, I was walking through Arlington National Cemetery to pay my respects when I saw two young women at the graves talking angrily. We were in Section 60, which is where the most recent military dead are buried. So I suspected they were wives of the fallen.
I stood near enough to overhear why they were so upset. One woman was crying that she had been wished a “Happy Memorial Day.” It’s not happy for me, she said to her friend.
The other woman said she was angry because someone wished her a “Happy Gold Star Family Day.”
There’s nothing happy about getting the “Gold Star” family honorific. Americans use the term so we continue to honor, express gratitude and share in the grief of those families whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice.
I tweeted about this at the time with an idea to fix the problem.
Americans need to be educated that Memorial Day is not at all happy for the grieving family of the service members who died in the line of duty. But greeting each other by saying “Happy Memorial Day” is so ingrained in our culture that it would take, I suggested, a nonprofit to run a public awareness campaign.
Gold Star families
Now, three years later, I realize I did not follow up on this idea. It hit me when Cheyenne McCullum, who is a contributor to this newsletter, posted on Instagram a week ago.
Cheyenne’s brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum was one of the 13 service members killed just last August during the evacuation of Afghanistan.
This is what Cheyenne wrote in the caption:
As everyone gears up for their fun weekend of camping, BBQs, parties and extra day off work, I want to remind you… Memorial Day is different for a lot of us. It’s crying on my kitchen floor. It’s heartache every minute. It’s a reminder I will never see my favorite person again.
It’s hurting for other families feeling the same way I do. It’s remembering that freedom is not free. Less than a year ago, 13 families including my own, lost a loved one who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
So while you enjoy your weekend, please remember the reason you get that extra day off work. Take a moment to think about it. Have a drink in honor of someone we lost. A moment of silence very much earned.
She’s right that if we take a moment of silence to think about it, we’d see that it’s not a happy Memorial Day for the Gold Star McCollum family.
Cheyenne and her sister-in-law Gigi (who I’ve interviewed here) and sister Roice are spending the first Memorial Day that is intended for them. They are in their early 20s. Rylee’s and Gigi’s daughter Levi was born after her father was killed.
Think about the other families of the 13 fallen who we wrote about on the six-month anniversary of their death by an ISIS terrorist. None of these Gold Star families are happy today. They are in deep and painful grief.
It’s not Veterans Day
The other public misconception about Memorial Day is that it is to honor the military who served our nation. It’s not. It’s a holiday for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Even the media get this wrong. The email newsletter that often dictates news in Washington D.C. called “Politico Playbook” wrote this today:
It’s Memorial Day. A special thanks today to all who have served and fought for our freedom.
While it’s always nice to thank those who served and fought for our freedom, that’s not the purpose of Memorial Day.
Veterans Day honors those who served and survived. If you’re talking to vets on Memorial Day, I’d suggest after thanking them for their service, perhaps say you’re thinking of their comrades in arms who didn’t make it home.
We will honor veterans in November on their own day, which is often misspelled, so I tweeted this guide:
The war memorials
I was recently at the Marine Corps War Memorial with a friend who is a Gold Star mother. Her son was killed in Afghanistan in 2009. We watched as tour buses of mostly teenagers took selfies and joked and had their backs to the Iwo Jima statue.
My friend was upset that the Memorial for her son was treated with such disrespect. She said she comes to visit it early morning to avoid seeing the tourists.
It made me realize that many people don’t know the difference between the war memorials in D.C. — like WW2 and Vietnam — and the monuments, like Lincoln and Washington. I’ve been thinking about how best to teach that to young tourists.
Gen. Colin Powell, my former boss and friend, was a part of the annual Memorial Day concert on the Mall for 25 years. The show last night was a tribute to him. I watched and was sad to hear his voice and see him looking straight through my TV.
I dug through our emails during the show and remembered that in his 2013 concert speech, he talked about the specific war memorials in D.C. Watch the video here. He explained what he thinks about when visiting each memorial, such as:
Each time I approach the Korean War Veterans Memorial, I see 19 soldiers on patrol as our nation’s tribute to the over 36,000 service members who died in that war.
I know my Gold Star mother friend would like people to see her son and the Marines who have died in all the wars when they approach the war memorial. She pointed out the Afghanistan war was recently marked on the statute — see the photo I took below— but does yet not have an end date.
Gen. Powell is buried in Section 60 at Arlington with the men and women he commanded and who lost their lives in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other places.
Even though I know Memorial Day is not Veteran’s Day, I sent Powell an email after I left Section 60 that year I overheard the Gold Star widows talking about being wished a “happy” Memorial Day.
I thanked him specifically for his various posts in his 35 years in the Army. I ended my email by saying this:
I walked all over Arlington today. Just saying their names. Went to Section 60 last - it’s so painful - and tonight I’m thinking how you’ve lived with this grief all those years.
Thank you for your service always sounds so weak to me. Thank you for fighting for freedom and peace. God bless you. I love you.
The Gold Star families visiting the graves there today and at cemeteries and war memorials across the nation are grieving. For these families, every day is Memorial Day. “It’s heartache every minute,” Cheyenne wrote.
While we work to teach people not to wish a “happy” Memorial Day, we need to propose other options. Perhaps you say: Have a blessed or an honorable Memorial Day. If you have better ideas, leave it below in the comments.
Note to paid subscribers about the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas: