Memorial Day: What It Is And Is Not About by John C. Church Jr.

Colonel John C. Church Jr.

It is not about backyard barbeques.  It is not about super sales.  It is not about parades down Wayne Avenue.

It is about sacrifice.  It is about loss.  It is about remembrance and reconciliation.  It is about reaching out.

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service.  On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially proclaimed Memorial Day in his General Order No. 11, and it was first observed on May 30 that year when he directed that flowers be placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.  Memorial Day is now celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in May as the National Holiday Act of 1971.

For more than half a century on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the soldiers of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing.  They will place flags on the graves of my friends who are found in Section 60 of Arlington, known as the saddest acre in America.  You never met Trane, Meg, Travis or Bill.  But I will be thinking of them especially that day.

To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance,” Congress passed a resolution in 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, all Americans “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps‘.”

Today, as you read this reflection approximately 22 veterans will take their own lives.  That’s a suicide every 65 minutes.  The Department of Veterans Affairs released this data last year.  Now, because of the tragic deaths of veterans as a result of bureaucratic delays, some are calling for the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs and retired Army General Eric Shinseki.  Many do not know that Director Shinseki was severely wounded in combat in Vietnam, losing part of his right foot.  He then spent almost a year recovering from his wounds. Director Shinseki has said 3,000 VA employees were removed last year — retired, transferred or terminated — for misconduct.

It is not about Director Shinseki.  It is about the veteran who, as you read this, is deciding right now whether to take his or her life.  Right now.

It is about what we can do to support these veterans. We can volunteer at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center (call 215-823-5800 ext. 5868) or head out to the Coatesville VA Medical Center (call 610-384-7711 ext. 4272) or just visit

We can also simply learn more about how to best support veterans by watching Patrick Murphy’s “Taking the Hill” on MSNBC, in which he explored the trials wounded veterans face after returning home. Or we can watch “Coming Back with Wes Moore” on PBS, in which he details the experiences of war veterans just re-integrating into society.

Barbecues are great.  Love ’em.  Saving money on sales important.  Hey, my bride Mary Kay, a mommy veteran herself, and I have four young children. The Church Gang loves the Wayne Memorial Day Parade. Who doesn’t?

But Memorial Day is supposed to be more. JC, Travis, Harper and Claire will always know about and help their daddy honor Trane, Meg, Travis and Bill.  I promise you that.

It is about us stopping, just for a moment, at 3 p.m. this Memorial Day to reflect, remember, reconcile and, most importantly, reach out to a veteran before he or she becomes another casualty.  Thank you and Semper Fidelis.

John C. Church Jr. is a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and an assistant professor who teaches in the English/Communication Department at Immaculata University. E-mail him at

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