As Memorial Day approaches, many of us are looking forward to family barbecues, a day off work and maybe the ubiquitous mattress sale.
But perhaps the nation’s most sacred holiday is about much more. Congress declared the observance of Memorial Day in 1971, but its history of honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms is much older.
Three years after the Civil War ended, an association of Union soldiers held the first “Decoration Day,” on May 5, 1868. Maj. Gen. John A Logan declared its observation on May 30, and that year, the first large gathering was held in Arlington National Cemetery, near the Potomac River near Washington, D.C.
Civil War veterans paid their respects to fallen service members — both Union and Confederate — by laying flowers on their graves, saying prayers and singing hymns. That may not have been the first such ceremony, though.
Local tributes to slain Civil War soldiers were held in both the North and South in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. Macon and Columbus, here in Georgia, as well as Richmond, Va., Carbondale, Ill., and Boalsburg, Pa., all claim to have held the first forerunner of Memorial Day. But it was President Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1966, to declare Waterloo, N.Y., as the “birthplace” of holiday.
Regardless of where the holiday began, its meaning is the same across these United States. The hallowed act of giving one’s life in the service of our republic is the greatest act of civic patriotism one can offer.
A few years ago, I was working for a newspaper in my hometown of LaGrange and researching a story to run on Memorial Day. While examining the holiday’s history and looking for local connections, I learned the story of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Hammett Lee Bowen. He was born in LaGrange on Nov. 30, 1947.
At age 18, in 1965, Bowen joined the U.S. Army from Jacksonville, Fla., and was sent to boot camp in Fort Campbell, Ky.
During the Vietnam War, Bowen advanced quickly. By the time he was sent to Bihn Duong province, in southern Vietnam, he had been promoted to staff sergeant, the sixth highest of nine enlisted Army ranks.
On June 27, 1969, Bowen’s platoon was on a reconnaissance mission into enemy-controlled territory when it came under crossfire from small arms and grenades. As the North Vietnamese ambushed the platoon, Bowen fired back — hard. He ordered his men to fall back, and as they went for cover, an enemy grenade landed in their midst.
Bowen barely had time to shout a warning to his men before hurling himself atop ordnance. The blast killed the 21-year-old soldier, but saved the lives of at least three others. For his actions, Congress posthumously awarded him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest and most prestigious personal military decoration.
Today, Bowen is buried in a modest grave in Restlawn Memory Gardens, off Mooty Bridge Road north of LaGrange. Each year, a group of local veterans tend to his grave, offering respects, flowers and prayers.
Bowen’s is one of countless acts of valor by American service members throughout our nation’s history. Countless families have lost treasured family members.
So, when you’re out with your family or friends this Memorial Day grilling hot dogs and having a good time, take a moment to remember the people who died in the service of our country. If you have a family member in our military, thank them. Let them know how much you appreciate their efforts, because there are many families out there who can no longer express that to their loved ones.