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Ben Ford

The eloquence of silence on Memorial Day

Ben Ford | May 26, 2017

Like others, we’re ready to pack up for the beach, fire up the grill and break out the Frisbee for this Memorial Day weekend.

For most Americans, the holiday unofficially kicks off our summer season. To many of us, summer means adventure. In our rush to fun and adventure, however, we also intend to take a moment to remember the reason for the holiday.

Often confused with Veterans Day, Memorial Day honors those who died in the nation’s defense, who gave, as President Lincoln so eloquently described, “the last full measure of devotion.” Lincoln spoke those words, part of the Gettysburg Address, at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery in Pennsylvania. In 1868, the tradition then known as Decoration Day began with Union veterans and the families of the honored dead paying their respects at cemeteries.

No one understands Memorial Day better than our active military. Our clients at Fort Detrick and Aberdeen Proving Ground will hold their Memorial Day ceremonies with an understanding of the long line of sacrifices that stretches back throughout our nation’s history.

Aberdeen Proving Ground will dedicate a new memorial monument on May 31 at Festival Park in Aberdeen. The monument’s dedication reads, “This monument stands as a tribute to the Department of Defense civilians, military service members and support contractors of Aberdeen Proving Ground and the former Edgewood Arsenal … we honor their lives and their contributions to our national defense. Each gave the last full measure of devotion while performing their duties.”

At Memorial Day ceremonies, it is traditional for a moment of silence to remember the dead. That silence speaks volumes.

During World War II, newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle painted pictures with his words of life on the ground with the infantry. His most famous column, however, chronicled the death of Captain Waskow and the heartbreak soldiers experienced when faced with the deaths of their comrades and the power of silent tributes.

Pyle described how during a hard stretch of fighting in the Italian mountains the Army hired Italian muleskinners to carry the bodies of fallen Americans down the mountainside to a collection point at the bottom where Pyle waited with other soldiers.

Friends of the deceased took an opportunity during a break in the fighting to see their fallen comrades.

“Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand [of Captain Waskow], and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there. And finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.”

We live in peace, free of fascism because soldiers like Captain Waskow went to war and did their duty. They fought knowing they faced death, and they carried out their job. Imagine going to work at your office and the person in the cubicle next to you was killed, and you must carry on. Then the next day, you lose three more friends down the hall from you, and the replacement in the cubicle next to you who you just met. And you must still carry on.

We cannot truly honor those soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country because their actions honored them far beyond what we are capable. We can only pay our respects for what they gave to our nation.

We can and should enjoy our Memorial Day weekend. We should live our lives happily and fully because Captain Waskow and many others died to assure us our freedom to do so. We should also give pause to remember and thank them for that sacrifice.

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