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Don’t let this happen to you!

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- It was just over a year ago when I was asked to speak at a Memorial Day ceremony for a retirement community in St Petersburg, Fla. I'm not sure why I was asked as I certainly did not feel qualified to speak to a crowd of proud veterans on Memorial Day. I'm sure that it was just the simple fact that I was an active duty member of the Armed Forces. I graciously accepted the offer and desperately tried to come up with a topic to discuss. I was a little embarrassed because I really didn't know anything about the history of Memorial Day. 

As with many Americans, Memorial Day has simply become another 3-day weekend. It's the beginning of the 101 days of summer; it's baseball, boating, barbecues, and hanging out at the beach (especially in sunny Florida). Needless to say, I had to do some research to learn more about Memorial Day. 

Three years after the Civil War ended, on 5 May, 1868, the head of an organization of Union Veterans established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the people who died in the war. Maj. Gen. John Logan declared Decoration Day should be observed May 30. 

General Logan's ordered his posts to decorate the graves "with the choicest flowers of springtime" urging "We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic." 

Many cities have claimed to be the birth place of Decoration Day, but in 1966, Congress declared Waterloo, N.Y., the "birthplace" of Decoration Day and renamed it Memorial Day. It was there, on 5 May, 1868, the community held a ceremony honoring local veterans who fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. 

It was not until after World War I that Memorial Day was expanded to honor those who died in all American wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday in May. 

Sadly, many Americans have lost this connection with Memorial Day. For many, the spirit of remembrance is absent. Many Americans have no experience with or connection to the military. We have fewer and fewer veterans to share their stories and many older veterans don't like to talk about their service. 

What can we do? We can all make a difference in our families and in our communities by putting the "Memorial" back into Memorial Day. Congress has done its part by establishing "The National Moment of Remembrance Act" in 2000, encouraging all Americans to pause, wherever they are, at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who died in service to our nation. 

I would also encourage everyone to learn more about the sacrifices of our veterans and share with others your experiences of serving in the military today. I'm confident we all have a story to tell about someone we know who has paid the ultimate price while serving this country; share their stories and honor their service. 

I will leave you with this last thought on Monday, 28 May, 2007, and every Memorial Day after, honor the service men and women with the highest regard and deepest respect for their service and sacrifices that gave us the gift of freedom. May God bless them, their families and this great country of ours!