Cari Ashkin

The eloquence of silence on Memorial Day

by Cari Ashkin

Like others, we were 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 the summer season and the bliss that comes with it. But in that rush towards all things “fun in the sun,” we also intend to take a moment to remember the reason for the holiday.

Memorial Day – firstly known as Decoration Day – began in 1868 with Union veterans and the families of the honored dead paying their respects at cemeteries. Often confused with Veterans Day, Memorial Day is solely dedicated to those who died in the nation’s defense. It commemorates those who gave “the last full measure of devotion,” as President Lincoln eloquently described in the Gettysburg Address at the Gettysburg cemetery in Pennsylvania.

For our clients at Fort Detrick and Aberdeen Proving Ground, their Memorial Day ceremonies are held with an understanding of the long line of sacrifices that stretches throughout our nation’s history. Aberdeen Proving Ground’s memorial monument at Festival Park even includes a quote from Lincoln’s address in its dedication, stating:

“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 tradition to take a moment of silence in remembrance of our fallen heroes – a tradition that began during World War II. At that time, newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle covered stories of life on the ground with the infantry, painting vivid pictures with his words. His most famous column chronicled the death of Captain Waskow and the heartbreak soldiers experienced when faced with the deaths of their comrades.

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 cannot truly honor those soldiers, like Captain Waskow, who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country, because their actions honor 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, but we should also give pause to remember and thank those for their sacrifice. For that moment of silence speaks volumes.