(Editor’s note: This commentary is condensed from a May 2015 feature by Teddy James, an AFA staff writer at the time.)
Memorial Day. To some, it is just a flag, resting in a triangular box on a mantle. To others, it explains why there’s an odd number of place settings at the table, why the opposite side of the bed stays cold, why there’s a vacant seat at graduation, why a bride walks down the aisle alone.
To some, it is just a day, an excuse for a three-day weekend to barbeque and celebrate the beginning of summer. To others, it is a day to remember daughters they can’t hug, dads they can’t call, friends they couldn’t save, brothers who saved them with the ultimate sacrifice.
Why we remember
No fewer than two dozen cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. While the site is disputed, it is clear the tradition started around 1866 as a way to memorialize soldiers who died during the Civil War.
The sentiment covered the country, and today, Memorial Day pays homage to those who surrendered their lives in all wars for a purpose they deemed bigger than their personal safety.
Who we remember
Army Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith was part of B Company, 11th Engineer Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division. On April 4, 2003, Smith participated in building an impromptu prisoner of war holding area in Baghdad, Iraq. During the construction, his unit was attacked by a group of Iraqi fighters.
Smith climbed into a damaged M113 to man its .50 caliber machine gun and ordered the driver to reposition the vehicle so he could fire on the enemy, leaving himself unprotected and exposed to enemy fire.
Afterward, Smith’s team found him slumped over the machine gun. His armor showed 13 bullet holes. SFC Smith was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Smith and countless other heroes who have given their all for America are who Memorial Day honors.
How we remember
Morrill Worcester won a trip to Washington, D.C., and Arlington National Cemetery when he was 12. The image of rows and rows of headstones lodged itself in the mind of the preteen. The sight taught him real people gave their lives to pay for the freedom he enjoyed every day. That lesson never left him.
Years later, Worcester founded his successful business, Worcester Wreaths, in Harrington, Maine. One year he had a surplus of Christmas wreaths, and the image of Arlington’s unadorned headstones came back to mind. With the help of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and others, Worcester placed the wreaths in an older section at Arlington.
Worcester and his team quietly kept the tradition until 2005 when an image of the gravestones, semi-covered in snow and decorated with evergreen wreaths and red bows, took the internet by storm.
From the sudden outpouring of support, Worcester and a team developed Wreaths Across America, and the movement continues to grow. The wreaths are a solemn, silent tribute to those who gave their lives for a nation’s freedom.