What Memorial Day means to me

Almost everyone in America knows that the last Monday of May is a holiday – not necessarily why it is, but that it is. They know it’s called “Memorial Day,” but many of them don’t know why.

A quick Google search informs us that Memorial Day is: “… an American holiday observed on the last Monday of May, to honor men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.

“In the years following the Civil War, it was originally known as Decoration Day and it became Memorial Day, an official federal holiday, in 1971.

While officially it is still set aside as a day to honor American servicemen who died in combat, it has become merely a three-day weekend for most people, many of whom have no idea as to its origin and significance. Unfortunately, they probably couldn’t care less.

Just in case you aren’t aware of the numbers, the total loss of American lives in battles since the Revolutionary War is 651,031. If other casualties are factored in throughout these wars, the total comes to 1,190,085 Americans who have sacrificed their lives for this country and for our liberty.

While we should celebrate this day with festivity, we need to embrace an attitude of gratitude and humility in light of the sacrifices so many have made to preserve our freedom and national unity.

There is something we need to remember: The U.S. military today is comprised strictly of volunteers. The men and women who serve in our Armed Forces are there because they value the freedoms many of us take for granted. We forget there are people who would seize the opportunity to deprive us of this freedom were it not for the strength and dedication of our volunteer military.

The “draft” – or “conscription,” as it was once known – was in effect during our Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the Cold War. But that is not the end of the story. While we have men and women serving in a multitude of countries today, the objective is still the same; they are there to ensure liberty and freedom for the inhabitants of those countries. In America, we still cling to, and in some cases abuse, the somewhat outmoded (for many in the world) concept of individual liberty.

I still remember the lessons learned as a 13-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. I had the opportunity of viewing firsthand the lack of liberty experienced by many in countries around the world. The restrictions placed on me as a black man in America in the 1950s and early 1960s paled in comparison to some of the constant oppressions imposed upon the majorities by Middle Eastern monarchs and Central and South America and African despots.

When I saw what the citizens of these countries experienced on a daily basis, it only increased my commitment to defend America against all enemies foreign and domestic. Countries like Russia, China, Iran and dozens of others today don’t rely merely on patriotism to build their armed forces; their agendas are more than merely the defense of personal freedoms.

The men and women who volunteer to enlist in our Armed Forces swear an oath upon their enlistment. I was only 17 when I raised my right hand and swore this oath; it was only after several years and three or four overseas assignments that the meaning of it became more than just some words recited with a group of other enlistees.

Even today, as I review it, it comes back anew and dramatic in my mind. The difference is, back then I said it because I wanted to join the Air Force to impress the girls and travel. Today, like many veterans reading this, I would say it again because I mean it. I also now fully understand the necessity of voting for the right person for president.

I, Ben Kinchlow, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

May God continue to bless America as a result of the sacrifices of the many we gratefully pause to honor this Memorial Day weekend.

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