Some are saying that Memorial Day this year will be a welcome downtime for Americans weary of struggles with a pandemic, inflation, high crime and shortages of things like baby formula.

True, these are valid concerns that will demand the best thinking of politicians and policy makers, but they pale in comparison to what the nation’s problems would be if brave men and women had not willingly sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom.

James Garfield, who would ultimately lay down his life to an assassin’s bullet while serving as president, spoke at the first Decoration Day ceremony at Arlington Cemetery on May 30, 1868, a forerunner of the modern Memorial Day holiday. While then serving as a member of Congress, he set the proper tone for future Memorial Day services:

“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion,” he said. “If silence is ever golden, it must be here, beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. … 

“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

Garfield’s words were made more poignant by the fact he had served as a major general in the Union Army that had preserved the United States.

How Memorial Day became an American tradition

The sad truth is that each generation has had to offer its share of brave soldiers to the same cause. Freedom is truly never won forever.

Memorial Day should be a time to think of these heroes — people like Maj. Brent Taylor, who took a leave of absence as mayor of North Ogden to serve with the Utah National Guard in Afghanistan. He was on a weekly training hike in 2018 with Afghani special operations soldiers in training when one of them shot and killed him. An investigation later found that the Afghani soldier had been radicalized.

The dreams he carried

Or, more broadly, it should be a time to think of the estimated 1.35 million American military personnel who have died in wars since the Revolution, including death estimates for the Civil War ranging from 650,000 to 850,000 people.

When we keep these heroes in mind, Memorial Day becomes more than a holiday marking the gateway to summer; it becomes more than just a time for barbecues and games. It becomes a time to appreciate that those things are possible because so many willingly died to make it so.

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The United States isn’t perfect. Some basic freedoms are under attack from within. Some racial and ethnic groups have been denied rights unjustly because of the color of their skin. Many complain that taxes are too high and the national debt too big. But each generation has tried to advance the ideal, as well as to rectify the wrongs, while also rebuffing outside attacks on national interests. And each should stand in awe of those who died in the service of others.

Garfield’s words are worthy of reflection: “I know of nothing more appropriate on this occasion than to inquire what brought these men here,” he said, referring to the many graves of fallen soldiers.

We, too, should make that inquiry, then pause to give thanks.

The National Moment of Remembrance Act, passed in 2000, asks people to pause at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day to remember the men and women who died serving the country. That would be an appropriate thing to do no matter how you choose to spend the day, and no matter how anxious you may be about the pressing worries of today.

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