6 Things Every American Should Know About Memorial Day

From soldiers deployed overseas to families in the backyard, people across the nation take a moment on the final Monday each May to honor our fallen veterans. These six captivating pictures show the great variety — yet singular dedication — to this solemn occasion.

6. “Flags In” at Arlington

Father and son place flags for Arlington National Cemetery's
U.S. Army/Adam Skoczylas — Master Sgt. Steven Colbert places a flag on a grave site with his son’s assistance. The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) began their rounds to place a small American flag into the ground in front of every grave marker at Arlington National Cemetery for the upcoming Memorial Day observance.

It has become a Memorial Day tradition on the part of the 3rd Infantry Division, (The Old Guard) to place flags on every grave at Arlington National Cemetery. They are placed with military precision, one boot length from each stone. It is a powerful way to remember each Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Coast Guardsman, and Marine who died while serving this country, and who now rests beneath those stones in those hallowed grounds. It will take days for the Old Guard to complete this task, but when they are finished and the sun rises on Memorial Day again this year, the grounds of that sacred place will be ablaze with color. Though it is a place of somber remembrance, it will boast a celebratory air that day. The same will be true in cemeteries where veterans are buried all across the country. It is good for us to remember those who have served and to celebrate what they gave in service to us all.

5. Flags and Flower Leis

Cub Scout places a lei and flag on Memorial Day
U.S. Air Force/A1C Galbreath — A Cub Scout from troop 195 of Oahu, Hawaii places a small lei and an American Flag onto a grave marker at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, during a Memorial Day Ceremony, 2002.

It is particularly good to teach the young the meaning of this day. Our young people need to be taught the meaning of this day, and why we celebrate it with so much pomp and circumstance. They need to be taught why this nation is worth that cost as well. And they need to know that when the freedoms this nation represents are threatened, some will be asked to answer the call to serve. They need to be taught that of those who have done so, all gave something of themselves to the service of the nation, but some, like those who we honor on Memorial Day, gave everything. They gave “the last full measure of their devotion” in order to preserve those freedoms.

4. Honoring the Sacrifice

Flags and flower leis adorn each grave in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
U.S. Navy/OS2 John Bouvia — Flags and flower leis adorn each grave in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the Punchbowl, in observance of Memorial Day, 1991.

Each generation of veterans hopes that by their sacrifices will have secured the nation for the generations to come.

3. Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns during Memorial Day
Army/Spc. Jacqueline Leeker — Changing of the Guard on Memorial Day The 3d U.S. Infantry conducts a Changing of the Guard, at the Tomb of the Unknowns, during Memorial Day, Monday, May 31, 2010, at Arlington National Cemetery.

Memorial Day is celebrated every year on the final Monday of May. The practice of celebrating it began after the Civil War. People had been in the practice of decorating the graves of veterans before and during the Civil War, but it was always on a very local scale. That cataclysmic event of the Civil War, with its over 700,000 deaths, meant that burial and memorialization to on new cultural significance. In those days, there were memorial day-like ceremonies in both the North and the South, for their respective fallen. Over time, the name for that day gradually changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day. This latter name became most common after WWII, but was not declared official until June 28, 1968 when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which placed it and three other holidays to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day holiday for each. Memorial Day was moved from its traditional date of May 30th to the last Monday of May.

2. Remembering the Fallen

U.S. troops honor the fallen during a Memorial Day observance in Kuwait
U.S. Army/Spc. Giancarlo Casem — Lt. Gen. Jim Lovelace, U.S. Army Central commanding general, addresses the crowd of service members, civilians, coalition forces troops as well as Kuwaiti soldiers during a Memorial Day observance at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, May 26. More than 4,000 service members are pictured on the wall behind Lovelace which commemorates the sacrifices of those who have fallen during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

Troops stationed in Korea, Germany, Italy, Afghanistan, and many other places, will gather that day to remember those who have served just as they are serving now. In some places, like Afghanistan, they will also remember those who have served and died in the war that they are still engaged in. In many of those places, the local people will come to honor those Americans who have fallen fighting for them as well.

6. Protecting the Future

A young patriot waves the American flag at a Memorial Day concert
Flickr/Robert McIver — A young patriot salutes heroes at the 2009 National Memorial Day Concert on the West Lawn of the United States Capitol.

On Memorial Day, it is the tradition to raise the flag of the United States briskly to the top of the staff, then to solemnly lower it to half-staff position until noon, when it is raised again to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position is to remember the more than one million men and women who have given their lives for this country. There will be a National Memorial Day Concert on the west lawn of the United States Capitol, which will be broadcast on PBS and NPR. There will be parades held around the country that will be enthusiastically attended by local crowds.

If you live near a military cemetery, or one that has a section dedicated to the military, take your family and attend the ceremonies, or watch the National Memorial Day Concert on PBS. Then, go and celebrate your family picnics on that three day weekend that has been set aside to remember those that fell in service to the country so that we all could enjoy the freedoms we have.

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