The Meaning of Memorial Day

On the last Monday of May each year, my normally affable husband is quiet and somber. He can’t help but think about the meaning of Memorial Day. For him, this day isn’t just the end to a long weekend or the unofficial start to summer. Instead, this day is a reminder of his time in the Army and the people he served with–especially those that didn’t make it home.

Photo by Jakki Zirbel Photo

Imagine a Young Soldier

My husband, Fred, joined the Army Reserves at 17, motivated more out of paying for college than patriotism. This was in the summer of 2001, when the idea of war seemed distant and unlikely. His basic training was scheduled for September 12, 2001. The day before he left, on September 11, 2001, two airplanes crashed into the twin towers, forever changing the history of our country and the trajectory of his life.

He spent nearly a decade in the service, including two tours overseas. I believe I have the Army to thank for much of his work ethic and ability to remain calm in emergencies. The military paid for much of his school and likely helped the stars align such that we would meet while working at the same law firm. Although he is several years older than me, Fred and I graduated from law school the same year due to the delay in his education caused by deployments.

On the rare occasion that Fred talks about his time in the military, it is normally a funny anecdote about a training exercise or the absurdity of their living quarters. He almost never talks about anything scary or dangerous that occurred. When he does, I find myself filled with gratitude that he made it home alive. It would be untrue to say that he is completely unscathed; his time in the service left him with significant hearing loss and a lack of the peaceful ignorance most of us have of the realities of war.

Support the Troops

In the months and even years following 9/11, there was an incredible affinity towards the Armed Forces. Bumper stickers and signs in shops enthusiastically declared, “We support our troops!” Now, when people learn that my husband is a veteran, they almost always regard this status with a sense of respect and gratitude. But the fervent swell of support for the Armed Forces we experienced in the beginning of this new millennium has settled down. Today, the divisive political landscape seems to dampen this sentiment.

Personally, I have complicated feelings about our government and sometimes find myself conflating the military, the people that control it, and the people that serve in it into one giant stew. But when I think about my husband at the age of 17, I picture a child. My own children are four and six and it strikes me that when Fred joined the army, he was far closer to their age than mine (36). It breaks my heart to picture him, old enough to risk his life for our country but too young to drink alcohol, rent a car, or even to vote for the politicians making the literal life or death decisions that directly impacted him.

Acknowledge Sacrifice

From World War II through the War on Terror, the United States has experienced almost 600,000 military fatalities. Many of these casualties were as young as my husband when he enlisted or only slightly older. Data suggests that as of 2022, the largest age group of the active-duty Armed Forces in the U.S. are ages 25 and younger. These people, barely at the dawn of adulthood, risk and far too often lose their lives in the name of our country.

This Memorial Day, I hope you get the day off from work or school. With any hope, the weather will be sunny, and the pools will be open. Between grilling and spending time with loved ones, I invite you take a brief moment to consider the meaning of Memorial Day by honoring and mourning the many individuals that died serving our country. Have a safe, happy, and reflective Memorial Day.

For tips on how to talk to children about difficult topics, check out our resource guide: How to Talk with Kids About Traumatic Events.


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