Enjoy the barbecue, but don’t forget our fallen heroes on Memorial Day

After 22 years working at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, I’m only starting to understand and appreciate the true meaning of this day, the director of Hines VA Hospital writes.

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WWII Veteran Myron Petrakis and Korean War Veteran Richard Nelson, residents at Belmont Village Senior Living, participate in a traditional flag folding ceremony at the official ribbon cutting of the American Heroes: Portraits of Service exhibit at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on Thursday, May 18, 2023 in Chicago. (Jean-Marc Giboux/AP Images for Belmont Village Senior Living)

WWII Veteran Myron Petrakis and Korean War Veteran Richard Nelson, residents at Belmont Village Senior Living, participate in a flag-folding ceremony at the ribbon-cutting of the American Heroes: Portraits of Service exhibit at O’Hare Airport on May 18.

AP

What is Memorial Day?

For many Americans, it marks the unofficial start of summer. For others, it’s something more.

I admit: When I was younger, Memorial Day weekend was a time to fire up the grill or head out of town for a long weekend.

However, after 22 years working at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, first as a nurse and now as director of Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, I’m only starting to understand and appreciate the true meaning of this day.

We dedicate Memorial Day to the heroes we’ve lost. It’s for those who sacrificed to uphold the ideals, beliefs and values we Americans hold sacred. It’s for the families who now have an empty seat that was once filled.

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As President Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or to detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

Lincoln spoke these words after one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles, which left more than 50,000 soldiers killed or wounded. What would our country be like today if not for the hundreds of thousands of Union troops who made the ultimate sacrifice? Would it exist at all?

The first known Memorial Day was on May 30, 1868, at the recently established Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia. Called Decoration Day at the time, over 5,000 Americans walked through the cemetery, casting flowers on more than 20,000 graves of Civil War soldiers, sailors and Marines. This simple tribute quickly spread to all corners of the nation and became a federal holiday in 1971.

The very hospital I’m privileged to lead is named after Edward Hines Jr., a young lieutenant from Evanston, Illinois, who died from injuries sustained while serving in the trenches in France in World War I. To honor his memory, his family donated the land for what is now our hospital, hoping their son’s sacrifice would help save other veterans.

Lt. Hines is interred at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, in Mundelein, Illinois. If able, I encourage everyone to visit him or other veterans laid to rest at any of the 155 national cemeteries, including 11 in Illinois.

Many of our national cemeteries are looking for volunteers to help maintain their hallowed grounds. There are few things more gratifying than visiting one of these places. Each headstone marks the eternal resting place of a brave man or woman. Each tomb is a story of courage and commitment.

I’ve cared for veterans who’ve stormed Nazi Europe, island-hopped across the Pacific, patrolled the jungles of Vietnam and scaled the mountains of Afghanistan. These veterans made it home, and each day I serve them is humbling. However, too many never came back to their loved ones.

Our greatest duty to those who have died in service to our country is to never, ever forget what they have done for each of us and what they have done for this nation. That is what Memorial Day means to me.

So please, enjoy your backyard barbecues or the long weekends away, but take a moment this Memorial Day to reflect on its true meaning. Our unofficial start of summer would not be possible without the generations of young men and women who gave their lives so that all of us could live in freedom and prosperity.

And to all our veterans, living and deceased, thank you.

James Doelling is the director of Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital.

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