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Some Thoughts for Memorial Day

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, May 25, 2009

For most of my life, Memorial Day signified the beginning of summer with a day off from school or work. When I was in college, Memorial Day usually fell during my final exams, so it was an extra study day. For the next couple of decades, my major goal on Memorial Day was to avoid the crowds at campgrounds, parks, and beaches.

But as I get older, I find myself thinking differently about Memorial Day. My new perspective began during the First Gulf War, when my brother-in-law was stationed in Bahrain. As Iraq hurled Scud missiles in his direction (and, remember, back then we feared these missiles might well contain chemical or biological weapons), I realized that my brother-in-law might die defending my freedom. For the first time in my life, the personal cost of war touched me. As it turned out, the Scuds were mostly duds, and my brother-in-law returned from the Persian Gulf safe and sound. But my heart had begun to change.

Then, as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I got to know several men who had served in the military, many in the Vietnam War. Listening to their experiences once more touched my heart. One of these men encouraged our church to adopt a tradition of singing The Navy Hymn (”Eternal Father, Strong to Save”) in the worship service prior to Memorial Day. We formed a men’s chorus, which I had the privilege to join. It was deeply moving to me to ask, in song, the Lord to protect those who put their lives in peril for the sake of our nation, and to do so with many brothers who had done this very thing. (To hear a portion of this hymn from a Navy choir, click here.)

In the last several years, my appreciation of Memorial Day has grown as I have had friends who have put their lives in harm’s way in Iraq. Though I haven’t known anybody who has been killed in this war, I have watched many news reports of families who have received the catastrophic news that their loved ones have died in battle. I find myself more and more moved by the sacrifice that people make for our country in general, and for me in particular. My gratitude is growing each year, and therefore my commitmen to make Memorial Day something more than the beginning of summer.

What we call Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day.  It was a day to decorate the graves of the Union Soliders who had died in the Civil War. Over time, Decoration Day included all who had died serving our country in our armed forces. It was also known as Memorial Day from the 1880s, though this did not become the offficial title until 1967. Congress fixed the day of Memorial Day to the last Monday in May by passing a law in 1968 that was enacted in 1971. Previously, Memorial Day always fell on May 30. In 1970, Memorial Day was celebrated on a Saturday, the last “non-Monday” holiday.)

The core idea of Decoration Day – decorating the graves of fallen soldiers – has been forgotten by many Americans, but not at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.  Every year, about 3,000 soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment place American flags by the graves of all who are buried in Arlington, more than 250,000 flags in total. I’ll close with a couple of photos of this tradition and one from last year’s Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery.

Soldiers preparing to put the flags by the graves:

Arlington National Cemetery with “flags in”:

Two children who lost their parents participate in Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington:

(Photos of soliders and children from

Topics: Holidays |

3 Responses to “Some Thoughts for Memorial Day”

  1. Ray Says:
    May 25th, 2009 at 6:48 am

    My prayer is that God will continue to bless the United States of America. Like you, as I get older my appreciation for the sacrifices of our soldiers deepens. Although I have not been called to military service, I am called to duty. And my duty as a citizen is to exercise responsible stewardship over God’s gift of freedom, and to guard against the internal threats of complacency and apathy.

  2. J Falconer Says:
    May 25th, 2009 at 7:10 am

    Thanks Rev. Roberts,family, & readers for remembering the selfless courage of the US military whether neighbors, relatives, or strangers to help defend this land & our freedoms. There is no end to opinions being expressed concerning peace, freedoms, & wars. Thanks again for honoring the soldiers & veterans alive or other soldiers memories. War is always costly but it’s nice never to have forgotten the bravery of people representing us. My father is a Navy veteran & I’d like to honor his name Jim or James Falconer. Most people are very low key who served in the military & the hardships of their experiences are sometimes best forgotten but it’s nice to honor their names & bravery. Sometimes the unsung heroes & Christians don’t receive their singing praises or just recognition & rewards this life & earth. Thanks again for the tribute to American’s heroes who did their best for America. J & family Thanks for recognizing current military & veterans for their sacrifices so we can enjoy some freedoms today!!!

  3. Tim Cook Says:
    May 25th, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Thanks, Mark…we sang the Navy Hymn again this year…wonderful as usual, but I missed you, and John Rader, who (you will recall) persuaded our rather peaceful choir director to start the tradition. The third picture in your post…soldiers and children…should say “soldiers, Marines, sailors and children.”

    Pax et veritas,



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