The following editorial is reprinted from The Paducah Sun, Sunday, May 24, 2009.
The patriotic holidays run together in our minds. Memorial Day. Independence Day. Veterans Day. Armed Services Day. Flag Day.
If Memorial Day weekend stands out, it's mainly because of the three-day weekend, an extended break from work and the unofficial start of summer vacation. We go to the lake or the park or grandparents' homes. We celebrate homecomings and hold picnics. We play ball and swim and catch up on one anothers' lives.
Some complain that we've forgotten the meaning of Memorial Day. That's not really true. Look at all the American flags. Note the crowds at parades and Memorial Day services. We do celebrate our freedoms as Americans and take time to honor our men and women in uniform whose service preserves those freedoms.
But it might be fair to say that we almost forget what makes this observance unique, what separates it from the other patriotic holidays. Almost.
Then they remind us.
At those Memorial Day events the veterans, especially those who served in time of war, are there giving testimony to what this day is about. They remind us with the rifle corps firing three startling volleys, disrupting the solemn quiet of the services. They remind us when they rise and stand at attention as the bugle sounds the haunting melody of Taps. They remind us in their stoic silence.
One must look close to see the most poignant reminder of what Memorial Day is all about; it is seen in the faces of our veterans. The man standing there may be bent over, his face leathery and wrinkled, his eyes dimmed by age. But behind those eyes is a frightened boy of 19 in a foxhole or behind a wall or deep in the jungle. And he's wondering how it is that he is still alive while his buddy lies dead. He's no closer to answering that question today than he was at 19.
And when he remembers that he is not 19 but 79, he wonders if his buddy would have been a better man, would have made a greater contribution to society. No matter what their own bravery in the field, the veterans always remember, on Memorial Day, those who didn't return.
Tomorrow, in respect to our faithful veterans, and taking our cue from them, we focus our devotion on those who didn't make it back. We honor those who died preserving the manifold freedoms and prosperity, even in these hard times, that we enjoy as Americans.
Richard Winters, the highly decorated Airborne major who commanded the famous Easy Company of the 101st Airborne, made famous by Stephen Ambrose's book "Band of Brothers," frequently quotes from a passage in a letter from a fellow soldier: "... My grandson asked me the other day ..., 'Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?' Grandpa said, 'No, but I served in a company of heroes.'"
Easy Company lost dozens on the battlefields of Europe. Those who remain can speak of the fear that filled their hearts when they were dropped through enemy fire in Operation Overlord. They can talk about the severe winter conditions they suffered at Bastogne.
But when the subject turns to the soldiers they left behind, their voices fade. Their silence reminds us that our freedom is not free, but purchased with blood.
That's what Memorial Day is about.