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Decorating the barbecue

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By John Pawlak

I rather enjoy making fun of so-called serious topics, recognizing the simple truth that most efforts in life are futile gestures and that we waste far too much time arguing the morality of dung beetles and the semantics of bingo games.  

But as Memorial Day approaches, I take a more serious stance. I believe we need to take a hard look at what is really being commemorated on this holiday.  We need to remind ourselves what it means to “remember” the heroics of the faceless and nameless.

As Americans chow down on barbecued ribs and drink a few cold ones, how much thought do we really give to the harsh reality of war? The problem is, war has become far too antiseptic.

We sip on our morning coffee and read about desolate regions of conflict, strange names, streets on which every window harbors a potential sniper. And then we work on the crossword puzzle. Loss and suffering are so much easier to tolerate when it’s not our front lawn bloodied by the violence.

But back to Memorial Day. First, a little history. Memorial Day dates back the close of the Civil War and was originally called Decoration Day, so named because people would decorate the graves of the soldiers. General John Logan (a fascinating person who probably deserves more visibility in American history classes) issued “General Order No. 11” ... “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet church yard in the land.

In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”

And so the first such memorial was observed at Arlington National Cemetery by placing flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers.

By the 1890s, all of the northern states celebrated the holiday, but the southern states refused to do so (they were still ticked off at losing the war) and chose instead to honor their dead on other days of the year. After World War I, when the holiday was changed to honor all Americans who had died fighting in any war, the southern states joined in celebrating the holiday together with the rest of the country.

No form of ceremony was prescribed, save the presumption that any such observance reflect the dignity befitting one giving their life in the line of duty.

So what has Memorial Day become today? Aside from a few parades and some lackluster flag waving, it seems mostly to be about political speeches, sales on summer wear and garden tools and of course those delicious barbecued ribs.

Faceless nameless heroes? No doubt, Memorial Day weekends will see more Americans killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.  And so we need to remember that Memorial Day is all about those faces and names.

May 28, 2007 - Memorial Day - Cpl. Junior Cedeno Sanchez (20 years old) of Miami, Fla. was killed in Baghdad, Iraq when a makeshift bomb exploded near his patrol.  Cedeno Sanchez was born in the Dominican Republic.

May 26, 2008 - Memorial Day - Spec. Justin L. Buxbaum (23 years old) of South Portland, Maine was killed in Kushamond, Afghanistan.  He was serving in Operation Enduring Freedom in the 62nd US Army Engineer Battalion.

May 25, 2009 - Memorial Day - Maged M. Hussein (43 years old), born in Cairo Egypt, was killed when an IED detonated near his convoy vehicle in Fallujah, Iraq.  Hussein was a doctor from Wellington, Fla. and is the first civilian in the US Army Corps of Engineers to be killed in combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I can’t really do justice to the sacrifices made by these people or the almost 5,500 other fallen warriors who have died in service to our nation.  I simply don’t have the space available and besides, I have to get back to the barbecue.  I don’t want the ribs to burn.