The real meaning of Memorial Day
The real meaning of Memorial Day

By Kyle Longley

In normal times, for most Americans, Memorial Day conjures up the start of summer — beach and lake trips, barbecues, pool time, warm weather. Many don’t even stop to think about the purpose of the holiday. And those who do sometimes confuse Memorial Day with other holidays honoring veterans. But, with covid-19 leaving many Americans stuck at home or unable to enjoy these usual holiday celebrations, 2020 might be an opportunity to recall that Memorial Day is actually intended to be a day to remember those who died while serving in the military.

Over the past 50 years, the nature of war and the composition of the military have not changed significantly, despite the ending of the draft and inclusion of women into combat roles. A small segment of society bears the burden, and the desire to collectively mourn those lost in service remains powerful. Memorial Day offers an opportunity to celebrate the perseverance of those who have endured such losses and know the real meaning of the holiday all too well.

A half century ago, a family and community gathered to honor the sacrifice of one of the more than 58,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam. Just after Thanksgiving 1969, Marine Sgt. Clive Garcia Jr., who hailed from Morenci, Ariz., tried to defuse an enemy booby-trap. But, something went wrong, and he died in the blast.

A tribute to our fallen heroes. America remembers.

A few weeks later, on Dec. 14, his family, friends and the Morenci community gathered at the Holy Cross Catholic Church on a dreary day where clouds barely topped the always belching smelter smokestacks. Reporters from ABC News and Time observed the funeral, tying it to five other deaths in a group of nine soldiers including Garcia who left for boot camp in July 1966.

It was solemn affair, with tears flowing freely. Garcia’s parents and three siblings listened as the popular Irish-born Father Cornelius McGrenra talked about sacrifice and grief.

Soon after, at the gravesite, mourners gathered. The family laid Garcia to rest next to his friend, Robert Moncayo, whose body he had accompanied home in June 1968. At the end, Garcia’s mother, Julia, sitting next to his fiancee, Susie Hibbard, rose to say: “Thank you for being my son. Oh, my dear boy, thank you so much.” A reporter noted: “And so Sgt. Garcia, U.S. Marine Corps, was laid to rest in the rocky, red earth he loved so well.”AD

The following day, Julia Garcia sat down for an interview with ABC, talking about Garcia and his friends who also died in Vietnam. She concluded: “I thank God for lending him to me. I had him so long, 22 years, and now God wants him back.”

After the public scrutiny ended, Garcia’s loss never left his family or friends. Morenci erected memorials to him and his friends who joined together, including one outside the new high school built in the 1980s.

But, he and the others remained frozen in time while family and friends aged. In particular, the three who returned from the group bore survivor’s guilt, trying to understand why they survived when their friends did not. Holidays were especially hard, and even 51 years later, a mix of pride blended with the sorrow of loss.

Garcia’s death was far from unique in American history as highlighted by his name’s place on the Vietnam Memorial (Panel 16W, Line 124) with so many thousands of others.AD

The war in Vietnam was fought primarily by the working class and lower middle class, mostly young men barely beyond their teens, often led by college-educated officers. The draft snared many or coerced others to join before they received their draft notices, and many followed in the footsteps of their fathers who served in World War II. But, this war proved much more divisive, and they returned home to a country bitterly divided over it. The deaths of more than 58,000 service members like Clive Garcia were nonetheless as painful as those of America’s preceding wars. And American service member deaths did not stop after the United States departed from Vietnam in 1973.

Since the attack on Sept. 11, 2001, about 6,800 Americans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. By 2001, the military itself had transformed into an all-volunteer force supplemented by the National Guard that continued to draw many of its members from the working and lower middle class (although typically older in this war). These service members were driven by economic necessities and opportunity, patriotism after 9/11 and a tradition of military service in families. Increasingly, women joined them, a significant number from the same strata of society.

While the class composition of the military hadn’t changed from Vietnam, Americans coming of age in the new millennium witnessed caskets arriving in large numbers from combat zones for the first time. One of those caskets was that of a Navy SEAL and U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Lt. Brendan Looney. He died when his helicopter crashed on Sept. 21, 2010, in Afghanistan. He was on his last mission.AD

His widow, Amy, who he’d married just one day before he shipped out, struggled with the loss. But she had support, including the parents of his good friend, Travis Manion, who had died in Iraq several years earlier.

She asked the Manions to reinter Travis to Arlington National Cemetery. She wanted Looney lying next to his college roommate in Section 60, which increasingly had become the final resting place for many who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the Looneys, it was not far from their home in the D.C. suburbs, and it connected their sacrifice to those which other families had endured over the previous century and a half.

A few days before Looney’s burial, the Manion family honored the request and reburied their son. Then on Oct. 4, 2010, more than 4,000 people lined the cemetery streets as six white horses pulled a carriage moving Looney’s casket. There, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stood alongside members of Looney’s SEAL team, noting: “Your men have to follow your orders. They don’t have to go to your funeral.” But in Looney’s case, they did show up.AD

As they prepared to lower the body into the ground in Section 60, a gun salute interrupted the sobbing followed by SEALs pounding more than 50 tridents into the casket. The family, including Looney’s two brothers, stood by their parents grieving the loss. As a close friend approached Amy, she repeatedly said: “No regrets. No regrets.”

There may not have been regrets, but just like for the Garcias and their friends in an earlier generation, the pain of loss will remain with them.

The sorrow will intertwine with pride of service and sacrifice. President Barack Obama visited Section 60 on Memorial Day 2011. He told the stories of the two Naval Academy roommates and concluded, “ ’Warriors for freedom,’ reads the epitaph written by Manion’s father. ‘Brothers forever.’ ”

Many others have joined Garcia and Looney in their final resting places as a result of military service throughout American history. Separated by four decades, however, these Gold Star families never will forget them, nor will many friends and comrades.

Memorial Day is a chance not only to remember the hundreds of thousands who have made the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country, but also their families and friends who continue to grieve. It is a significant burden to bear and Memorial Day has a special meaning for them.

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