Sometimes we Americans forget that ours is an optimistic land of opportunity. We become too focused on red state-blue state differences, on arguments about issues some substantive, some petty that divide us. We focus on the smaller things that drive us apart rather than the larger ones that bind us together.
Our leaders often speak of the need for unity, but then pursue aggressively partisan agendas that undermine their words. It takes great effort to get beyond very real differences. That is not to say we should ignore what separates us, but we should more often deliberately choose to relegate divisions to secondary status while emphasizing what welds us together.
Happily, Memorial Day is a holiday that affords us the opportunity to unite. Officially May 30, observed on the last Monday in May, Memorial Day is a holiday designed to honor soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us: they have given their lives in defense of our liberty.
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. It began during the Civil War when organized womens groups around the country began honoring fallen loved ones by decorating their graves. The first official Memorial Day was celebrated 151 years ago, after General John Logan, who was national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation setting aside a day to remember Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in the war. Memorial Day now encompasses all American wars and we honor all fallen soldiers.
Unfortunately, the National Holiday Act of 1971, which created the three-day weekend that most of us greatly enjoy, diminished the significance of Memorial Day. Our all-volunteer military is another reason for our lack of focus on Memorial Day: defending our country has become something done by other people whereas the military draft meant that military service touched almost every family. In many places, ceremonies and parades that were once held religiously have faded away, as we have become more focused on cookouts than the custom of honoring those who died while defending our country.
We are fortunate in Alexandria to have Arlington National Cemetery, our nations national military cemetery, so close by. Each year on Memorial Day weekend, soldiers place small American flags at each of the grave sites in the cemetery more than 260,000 in all. The soldiers then patrol the cemetery to ensure that each flag remains in place through Memorial Day.
We are also fortunate to have Alexandria National Cemetery. Though much smaller, it contains the gravesites of soldiers from the Civil War.
We urge Alexandrians to take time this weekend to remember those who have died defending us, especially the five fallen since 2003 in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan who used to live among us: Army Command Sergeant James David Blankenbecler, Marine Corporal Ngoc Le Bin, Army Private First Class Robert E. Drawl Jr., Marine Major Joseph Trane McCloud and Army Staff Sergeant Richard Seldon Eaton Jr. Remember that thousands of brave men and women are serving on our behalf in dangerous spots around the world but especially in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. If you have time this weekend, stop by Arlington Cemetery and take in the awe-inspiring sight of row upon row of tiny American flags gracing hundreds of thousands of graves. If honoring those who have paid the ultimate price for our independence doesnt unite us, then nothing will.