Remember our heroes this Memorial Day

Like most Americans, I am looking forward to a long weekend. But I hope that this Memorial Day, we each spend time thinking about the holiday’s true meaning. 

Memorial Day, properly observed, is a solemn affair. While the weekend has come to represent the unofficial start of summer, its real purpose is to nationally mourn the brave women and men who died in service of the U.S. Armed Forces. Nearly 1.2 million American troops have lost their lives during war time in our country’s history. While we pause as a nation every final Monday in May, do we fully reflect on the sacrifices so many have made on our behalf?

Even before the conclusion of the Civil War, Americans in the North and South set aside days to mourn the fallen from their communities. Following the deadliest war in American history, various veterans’ organizations, communities and states set aside one day in May each year to pause and reflect on those who were lost starting in 1868. That tradition grew for nearly a century; in 1967, Memorial Day was officially proclaimed as a national holiday by the U.S. Congress. In 1968, a three-day weekend was set aside for Memorial Day, which has now grown into a weekend of backyard barbecues, afternoon baseball games and blowout retail sales. But the true meaning of the holiday must not be overlooked.

I had the great honor of wearing our nation’s uniform. Memorial Day takes on a different meaning entirely after you have seen war up close and have friends who made the ultimate sacrifice. But while only about 7 percent of adult Americans are military veterans, every American has benefitted from the sacrifice of just a few. It is on each of us to recognize – with gratitude – those who gave their lives in order to afford us the freedoms we enjoy every day. This profound truth is driven home to me every day by the examples set by our nation’s Medal of Honor recipients.

Today I have the distinct privilege of leading the project to build the National Medal of Honor Museum in Arlington, Texas. I have to pinch myself sometimes knowing that I work alongside some of the bravest Americans to ever put on the uniform. There have been movies made about their personal exploits and heroism in battle, but ask any of the 64 recipients still living today and they will tell you the same thing: they proudly wear the military’s highest award for valor in recognition and remembrance of the real heroes, their brothers and sisters in arms who never made it home.

As the last living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, Cpl. Hershel “Woody” Williams put it: “We owe a debt to those who sacrificed their lives to keep us a free people. They did it for a cause greater than themselves and they are never going to be forgotten.” My hope is that we follow the recipients’ lead this Memorial Day in remembering and honoring those who died defending America.

As a nation, we set aside many holidays for celebration, but Memorial Day should also be an opportunity to think about and pay tribute to those who gave everything for our country. For those who perished behind the flag, there was no risk calculation or weighing of options. There was only action borne from love. And how we mark Memorial Day should reflect the seriousness of that kind of sacrifice.

By all means, gather with family and friends and enthusiastically beckon the coming of summer this weekend. But in the midst of all the revelry, take time to reflect on the courageous individuals who gave their lives so that their fellow countrymen and women might be free.

Chris Cassidy is the president and CEO of the National Medal of Honor Museum, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL and former NASA chief astronaut.