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Veteran with Flag

Memorial Day, like Decoration Day, is the Day for Honoring our Fallen Heroes

Long before Memorial Day became the unofficial kick off to summer, it was known as Decoration Day and it fell every year on May 30.

The sober history of the holiday has given way to picnics, flags and parades, but older Americans remember its solemnity. It is the members of the Greatest Generation, after all, who fought and died in World War II and Korea, and who—along with veterans of more recent conflicts—are paid tribute on Memorial Day.

The first Decoration Day in 1868 was a national day of remembrance during which grateful Americans decorated the graves of Civil War soldiers with flowers and flags. The occasion was proposed by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of northern Civil War vets.

President James Garfield lent his support by delivering a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate troops were decorated. That tradition has been carried on by the 3rd Infantry Division, which places flags on Arlington’s more than 260,000 graves each year on the Thursday before Memorial Day.

The holiday was officially renamed Memorial Day in 1967 and moved to the last Monday in May in 1971 in order to provide a three-day weekend for federal employees. But while many choose to celebrate the occasion with outdoor fun, the deeper meaning of Memorial Day continues to be observed with military services and red poppies.

Those silk poppies were introduced in 1915 by an overseas war secretary who was inspired by “In Flanders Fields,” a World War I poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician. The American Legion adopted the red poppy as its official flower in 1920 and began distributing them in 1924. The Legion promotes the Friday before Memorial Day as National Poppy Day in honor of U.S. military personnel.

Other Memorial Day observances are less well-known, particularly among the younger generation. The 2000 National Moment of Remembrance Act encourages Americans to pause at 3 p.m. local time to “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrances and respect.” Amtrak, NASCAR and Major League Baseball are among the organizations that observe the moment of remembrance.

And while many Americans fly the flag on Memorial Day, they may not realize that custom dictates it should be flown at half-staff until noon in remembrance of the fallen, then at the top of the staff until sunset.

Military groups like the American Legion Post 43 in Naperville keep the traditional observances alive by holding services featuring Taps and volleys at several monuments and cemeteries on Memorial Day before participating in the city’s annual parade. The post also decorates the graves of more than 2,000 veterans interred at Naperville area cemeteries.

Post 43 also supports efforts that honor living vets including the Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization that transports veterans to Washington, D.C., where they visit monuments and memorials and are honored for their service. More than 159,000 veterans have participated in the program since 2005, including two residents of Monarch Landing. Honor Flight Chicago’s 84th flight was held on May 9.

So, when you’re firing up the grill on Memorial Day, take a moment to honor the memory of the veterans who have served our country so courageously in its many wars. If you can’t decorate with flowers and flags, a simple moment of silence or the poignant sound of “Taps,” will do—as it has done for I50 years.