I was taught the power of this two-word phrase very early in my life from both my father and my mother. It was reiterated many times over by grandparents, uncles and aunts, teachers, my pastors, and just about anyone in the community around me who had even a modicum of gratitude and graciousness in them.
My father once explained it to me in a very simplistic, yet poignant way.
“Whenever a person does something nice to you or does something nice for you, it’s only right for you to say, ‘thank you.’”
My mother’s way was a little bit more direct.
“It’s a sorry person,” she would say, “who doesn’t take the time to say thank you to those who did for you something they didn’t have to do.”
For some reason, I starkly remember hearing this affirmation statement in conjunction with Memorial Day early in my life — as a Kindergarten student, in fact.
I remember it being late in the school year, in month of May. One of the last art projects we made during the last week of school as a Kindergartner were “thank you” flags. I remember my teacher saying that once we made them, even though Memorial Day would happen after school was out for the summer, she wanted us to make sure that we put these flags on our refrigerator or in some other prominent place in the house to where our parents and grandparents could see them.
“Let them know that you’re thankful for all the people who gave their lives for our country,” I remember her saying.
Unlike some of my closest friends and acquaintances growing up, I didn’t have a huge military presence in my family. I didn’t have grandparents or parents who could sit and tell me war stories. I did have one great uncle who told me about his experiences in the Vietnam War — the almost 20-year battle that just seemed to drone on and on for American soldiers and the families who loved them.
In fact, he not only told me stories about the war and his personal experiences in Vietnam, but he was one of the first people I saw get extremely perturbed when someone would say, “Happy Memorial Day” to him.
“I wish people would quit saying that,” he said. “There’s nothing happy about it. Not from where I sit.”
That’s because while Memorial Day, for many Americans signified the unofficial start of summer, for my great uncle, it represented a reminder of how much was lost.
He lost friends. He lost family. He even talked about how he lost pieces of himself during that war. He talked about comrades whom he ate with, bunked with and battled with who were lost in combat. He waxed reminiscent of those who, even after making it out alive physically, were never quite the same mentally or emotionally.
He talked with passion and emotion about some of the things he wished could’ve been avoided. His opinions on why American soldiers were summonsed to the Vietnam combat in the first place are strong. But one thing he rushes to make clear is, though he sometimes wished it didn’t happen, he never regrets being able to put on that uniform and represent “my country,” as he would proudly say.
That’s despite the fact that he didn’t always feel like America represented him well. “But some things are just bigger than how you feel,” he would say.
So Memorial Day wasn’t necessarily a happy time to break out the grills and put your best barbecuing foot forward. He would still participate, though. “Out of respect.”
“I don’t celebrate,” he said. “I lost too much. Saw too much. Saw too many who lost more than I did to celebrate. But I’ll always honor. I’ll pay homage. I’ll remember.”
Over the years, I’d hear people say something similar repeatedly. “I won’t celebrate, but I’ll remember.” And whenever I get tempted to just toss Memorial Day aside as just another opportunity to grab a day off work or another excuse to eat some ribs and chicken from the grill, I stop and I remember.
I remember that freedom isn’t cheap nor free. I remember that there are a plethora of folks who probably wish they could be here right now to remind us of how to properly honor this day. Except, they’re not because they honored our nation with the ultimate price.
I remember that all of us would probably see ourselves, each other and the imperfect nation we all call home in a much different light if we shared some of the experiences that those who put their life on the line for our protection shared.
It’s one thing to play “arm chair soldier” when we live in a time when there’s no immediate militaristic threat to our borders or if we’ve never put on a uniform that marked us as an enemy to some opposing army. But those who are left to remember what Memorial Day really is, have a much, much different perspective.
During this particular holiday, I always try to find someone who served and tell them, “thank you.” I know that this isn’t the day necessarily set aside for those surviving veterans, and I respect that. But I can’t tell them “thank you” in a way to where they can hear me. But I can say it to those who remain — those who know first hand what those who lost their lives were up against.
And I hope we’ll do the same. Whether it’s a showing of appreciation to those who have served, or time with family and loved ones or a day to relax from the busy grind, I challenge us to see this Memorial Day, and those after it, as less celebration and more solemn remembrance.
That doesn’t make it any less powerful. In fact, in my opinion, it makes the day exponentially more impactful.
And so, with this special section, we honor the fallen and we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. With reverence, respect and gratitude, we say, “thank you” to their service and to their memory. We offer prayers and appreciation to their families and we hope for a day that will allow us to view each other in a more congenial way as we share together this land and nation that so many gave literal blood, sweat and tears to defend.
Fallen soldiers of the United States military, and fallen soldiers who once called Covington and Newton County, Georgia home, we salute you. We honor you. We remember you. We say, thank you.
Gabriel Stovall is the Publisher and Editor of The Covington News. He can be reached at email@example.com.