It is a big question as we approach the Memorial Day holiday. For many who have had church memorials and homecomings this spring, it is a question asked regarding family and friends, but this weekend is an opportunity to honor those who have died fighting for our freedom in the United States.
Bob Graves of Winona remembers the summer of 1967, while the War In Vietnam raged. He was stationed in Fort Benning, Ga. and was asked to volunteers for the third Army Honor Guard.
After a few weeks of training, Graves was ready for his first assignment: a military funeral at a small country church near Waycross, Ga. Graves said the funeral detail consisted of 16 mean who boarded a passenger van and entertained themselves on the trip of just a couple of hours by playing cards, listening to the radio, or talking and laughing.
The van turned onto a gravel road and pulled up in front of a small wood-framed church.
“It became apparent to me that a young black Army private from this rural community and a member of this church had been killed in Vietnam,” Graves said. “We were here to honor him.”
The Honor Guard sat in the sanctuary as the pastor offered prayers and words of comfort to family and friends. A lady sang “Deep River” and “tears flowed from her eyes and from the eyes of most. Hurt filled the room.”
At the graveside, Graves stood beside the flag-draped casket facing the solder’s mother and father, sister and brother.
“I looked into their eyes,” Graves said. “Behind their blind stares was the simple question, ‘WHY?’”
The flag was folded and presented to the soldier’s mother. The rifle squad fired its voles and then the bugler sounded “Taps.”
“As he played, the mom put her face in her lap where the flag rested,” Graves said. “Mournful sobs filled the air along with the notes from the bugle. A big tear ran down my face.”
Graves said on the ride back to Fort Benning, no one talked; no one played cards or listened to music. Graves was sitting beside a man who had been part of the Honor Guard for about six months, and had seen combat in Vietnam. They began talking and Graves said that he “almost lost it” at the graveside service. Graves asked him how he kept his composure.
“He said that these funerals are tough on everyone,” Graves said. “We don’t even know the guy’s name, but we know in every case he was one of us. Maybe if you would just think about your folks back home and how proud they are of you for serving, that might help.”
While in the Honor Guard at Fort Benning, Graves participated in over 20 military funerals, in many different sized churches.
“The long bus rides back from these funerals afforded me time to reflect on the sacrifice these brave souls had made,” Graves said. “There were many similarities, but many differences in those that we buried. They came from all walks of life. Some were poor, some middle class and some rich. They were privates, sergeants and officers. They were Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, White, Black and Hispanic. Some had families of their own, a teenage wife, a couple of small kids holding on to their moms, looking confused, scared. All were young, mid-20s or younger. None of them wanted to die. All of them wanted to live, to come home to their friends and loved ones, alive.”
Graves said he believed it to be true of all of the hundred of thousands that have died fighting tyranny and for freedom, not only for American, but for the entire world.
“It is often said that they died for their country,” Graves said. “This is true, but I believe that actually, they died for us. They died for you and me. They died for generations of American yet to be born.”
Graves said Thomas Jefferson was at his best when he wrote of national freedoms in the Declaration of Independence. Graves said Jefferson described the rights of man as inalienable.
“That means these are natural rights and they would exist even if there were no governments, that these rights were endowed to man by our Creator,” Graves said. “Among these God-given rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those that we honor on this Memorial Day gave their lives so that we can freely assemble and speak; so that we can petition our government and seed redress, so that we can worship God, that we can pray, so that we can live our lives as free men and women.”
Graves quotes Jesus Christ by saying, “Greater love hath no man that he lay down his life for a friend.”
So how do we repay the sacrifice of those that gave their all for us this Memorial Day and all the days to come? A few tips from Graves:
1. We should never forget them. “We should embrace their families, friends and loved ones for those left behind have sacrificed as well,” Graves said.
2. We should be good citizens. “We must vote and be involved in government at all levels,” Graves said. “The freedoms we enjoy must be guarded from a too powerful government and from a too powerful bureaucracy.”
3. Support the military. “We must support those that serve in our military defending our way of life,” Graves said. “Today, a grave threat to our freedoms exists in the form of terrorism. We cannot be a free people if we must live in constant fear of a terrorist act.
4. Tell the stories of military heroes. “We must tell the stories of those that we honor today to our children and our grandchildren,” Graves said. “We cannot let our young believe that Memorial Day is ‘National Bar-b-que Day’. Those that come after us must know that their freedom came at a price, that others gave their all for them.”
5. Hug and pray. “This Memorial Day, hug a family member or fried of one of the people named on the monument out in front of the courthouse, hug a veteran, say a prayer of thanks for them, a prayer of thanks for our liberty, and pray that God continues to bless America,” Graves said.
It is never too late to thank a veteran, and Memorial Day is the perfect time to express your thanks. According to History.com, Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day during the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by attending parades and special ceremonies, holding family gatherings and visiting cemeteries or memorials of soldiers. At 3 p.m. on Memorial Day, there is a National “Moment of Remembrance.”
Friends and family are always a big part of any Memorial Day celebration. According to Supervisor Janet Harper, spending time with family and friends has become and important Memorial Day tradition.
“We have started traditions like my grandparents always did to instill them in our kids,” Harper said. “Just good old-fashioned FUN!!
“Memorial Day has become a time when our children come and enjoy a long weekend together visiting and remembering our loved ones,” said Charmayne Howell of Kilmichael. “We have a lot of good food and fun before each family’s summer activities begin.”
Rev. Mark Williamson, pastor of Winona Baptist Church, said Memorial Day is a time for reflection.
“Memorial Day causes me to think, reflect and be grateful for the men and women of our Armed Forces who paid the ultimate price while serving our nation,” Williamson said. “As a retired military family we tell others this day is not to honor us, but the families of those who gave their life.”
Reba Bailey of Carrollton said having family members with a military background helps to keep her family focused on the true meaning of Memorial Day.
“We always talk about the Mississippi observance of the Confederate War Dead on April 26,” Bailey said,“ then on Federal Memorial Day we talk about members of both sides of the family that were killed in war, served in war and those who were POW’s. Being that Steve has a military background; we as a family discuss these things as we have our annual Memorial Day barbeque.”
For Carolyn Swanson of Duck Hill and her family, remembering her father-in-law, Johnny Swanson, and the contribution he made in the Battle of the Bulge, is an important part of every Memorial Day celebration.
“He was the most patriotic person I ever knew,” Swanson said. “Being the son of Swedish immigrants, he loved this country and flew the American flag at his home everyday–a tradition we have kept up. Of course Memorial Day would not be complete without something cooked on the grill.”
Mississippi Senator Lydia Chassaniol remembers a classmate at the annual Memorial Day program at the Montgomery County Courthouse.
“The special part of Memorial Day, for me, is going to the program at the courthouse in Winona,” Chassaniol said. “One of my classmates, Theo Howard, lost his life in Vietnam. I always tear up when his name is read. It is such a privilege to be able to honor those who gave their all so that we can live in America.”
So, how do we repay the sacrifice of those that gave their all for us? Never forget.