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Reflecting on Memorial Day

May 22, 2015

On Memorial Day, we remember the men and women of the United States Armed Forces who gave their lives to protect the freedoms we cherish.  We mourn with the families and friends of those we have lost, hoping they find comfort in knowing their loved ones died with honor.

I find it useful and inspirational to reflect on the origin of the holiday we call Memorial Day, because its lessons of compassion and recovery resonate today. It began just after the Civil War, as Decoration Day, a time for the survivors of that terrible and tragic conflict to decorate the graves of the fallen which lay throughout the towns and counties of America -- especially in the South.

One of the first springtime tributes to the Civil War dead occurred in Columbus, Mississippi, on April 25, 1866.  A group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they had been the enemy and their loved ones were far away. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves as well.  This gesture of unity, one borne of a generosity of spirit, was part of the process of healing our Nation as Americans began to formalize the ways they honored those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

The first large national observance of Decoration Day was held two years later at Arlington National Cemetery. Speaking at the ceremony, President James Garfield recognized the sacrifices of the soldiers buried there, saying that “for love of country” they had “made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”  Today, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, Americans from all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities, and from all regions of our country, serve with valor, courage, and distinction as one people, united, in the Armed Forces of the United States. 

This Memorial Day, let us renew our commitment to preserving the legacy of our brave citizens by continuing to work for peace, freedom, and security.  And although we can never hope to repay the debt of gratitude our nation owes those who have served in the Armed Forces, we must never forget to acknowledge what we owe them.  As Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, it is our duty “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” 

Indeed, perhaps the best way we can honor the fallen is by supporting their families and by supporting servicemembers and veterans still with us today.  Through the Department of Justice’s Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative, we hope to help address the unique challenges that servicemembers face while on active duty, that veterans face upon returning home, and that families face when a loved one is deployed.  That includes prioritizing enforcing the statutes specifically created to protect the civilian employment rights, voting rights, and financial security of those serving in the Armed Forces, and supporting programs, including Veterans Treatment Courts, that assist the more than 22 million veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or other mental health problems connected to their experiences while serving.  Let us carry on the legacy of those who sacrificed their lives for our country by allowing servicemembers to focus on their work protecting the country and helping veterans take their rightful place in the country they have sacrificed so much to protect and defend. 

Servicemembers Initiative

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Updated March 3, 2017