5 Ways to Step Up: Memorial Day Remembrance and Tradition

 (Photo: Airman 1st Class Harry Brexel)
(Photo: Airman 1st Class Harry Brexel)

Each year, Memorial Day takes on deeper meaning for me. I have come to believe that remembrance carries with it a call to action for every American.

As far back as I can recall, my family always celebrated Memorial Day -- the day designated to honor and remember those who lost their lives in military service to their country. But my understanding of the holiday was limited, sort of one dimensional. Now, as a veteran with close to three decades of military service, Memorial Day for me has taken on many faces of sacrifice.

Every year it seems more important to me to help make Memorial Day more meaningful to others. I believe it's so important for members of the military and for veterans like me to do our part to educate those civilians who have never served in the military (some 93 percent of the country's population) about the significance of the holiday.

How can we do that? Here are five ways I offer for consideration:

1. Mark the day in remembrance.

When at all possible, try to spend the day with friends, family, fellow military members and veterans. Share memories, reflect on the sacrifice made by fallen warriors and their families and discover new ways to encourage those who are serving and have served, and their friends and families.

Memorial Day is also an opportunity for veterans and their families to reflect on the many sacrifices they made in service to America: the training, deployments, combat and prolonged separations that resulted in missed holidays, sporting events, birthdays, anniversaries, births of children, funerals of loved ones and so many other key life events.

The day also marks an opportunity to remember the lifelong friends made in military service and the shared joys and challenges of those times.

2. Start planning for Memorial Day in advance.

Leading up to the holiday, work with churches, businesses, schools and other community groups to encourage and organize public Memorial Day gatherings and to identify and reach out to Gold Star Family Members -- those spouses, children, siblings and other family members who have lost loved ones in military service. Though they will always feel their loss every single day, Memorial Day can be especially poignant and painful for these families.

3. Volunteer to speak at schools, civic clubs, Memorial Day celebrations, community gatherings and sporting events.

We hold a unique perspective which is important to share. We should do our best to share our experiences in a very positive way to build others' understanding and awareness of Memorial Day, and of the enduring sacrifice of fallen warriors and Gold Star Family Members. Our words can plant the seeds for others and our presence and remembrance be an example of respect and of honor for those who sacrifice in service to our country.

4. Encourage others in your family and community to find unique ways to commemorate Memorial Day and to honor those who have sacrificed.

We can lead our family and friends toward deeper understanding of Memorial Day by personally sharing with them some of our experiences in military service. We can teach the importance of honoring those who sacrificed for our freedoms to our children and grandchildren, and other family members and friends. In that way we are creating a lasting and meaningful legacy. We can encourage our circle of loved ones and friends to find ways to celebrate Memorial Day in their homes, churches, schools, workplaces and communities. Even the smallest gestures of remembrance are important.

5. Help arrange official color guard ceremonies for Memorial Day events and year-round for church services, athletic events and school programs.

The ceremony of presenting the flags grows patriotism in every heart, instills respect for the American flag and all it stands for and binds us all together in one love of country.

My Family's Memorial Day Memories

I remember when I was on active duty, how celebrating Memorial Day with friends and families of our unit served to strengthen the bond between all of us that endures to this very day.

My family's fondest memories of Memorial Day were during our six years in the 82nd Airborne Division, stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Division began the Memorial Day celebration the Monday before with a week of sports competitions, memorial services and alumni events, culminating on Thursday with a Division Review, and followed by a four-day weekend holiday. On Memorial Day, Fort Bragg celebrated with a concert and a spectacular fireworks display.

Throughout my career, and especially following 9/11, I was separated from my family frequently and for extended periods of time. So now, we always celebrate Memorial Day together over a meal while sharing memories of our time in service with some of the most remarkable and selfless people we have ever known. We talk about the deployments, the friends, life on different military bases, the organizational functions, the comradery, the different places we lived, the moves and the lifelong friends who shared our experiences. We thank God for that opportunity to be a small part of something that was so much larger than ourselves. We reflect on the unthinkable sacrifice so many endure through the loss of their fallen warrior and we pray for those Gold Star Family Members.

We cherish the memories of celebrating Memorial Day with friends who were serving and sacrificing for this country and our freedoms. My wife and I are so thankful that our daughters' formative years were spent with some of the most remarkable, selfless, dedicated, patriotic and faithful people America has ever known. It is these great Americans and thousands like them that make Memorial Day so special to us.

New Traditions We've Made

This coming Memorial Day in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization my family supports --- Point 27 --- will team with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) to present 2,000 Gold Star Family Members with Shields of Strength necklaces designed just for these family members. The lifetime keepsake necklace pendants are replicas of a folded American flag, similar to those presented during military funerals. The necklaces are physical reminders to Gold Star Family Members of God's Word and meant to give assurance to these families that their loved ones have not been and will not be forgotten. Each necklace is engraved with John 15:13: "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."

Opportunities like this, to honor fallen soldiers and to encourage Gold Star Family Members, blends with the memories we cherish of celebrating Memorial Day with friends who were serving in the military with us, and builds on the significance of Memorial Day every year for our family.

About the Author

U.S. Army veteran and retired Colonel David Dodd served more than 27 years in the military, including two deployments to Iraq and one deployment to Afghanistan. He is a man of deep faith, a husband and father. Currently he serves as the director of operations at Shields of Strength, and on the Board of Directors of Point 27 outreach to veterans, military families, first responders, athletes and the chronically ill.

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