Memorial Day may be the unofficial kick-off to summer, but as we ready for the upcoming holiday weekend, it is important we never forget the real meaning of this hallowed day. It is a time when we, together as a nation, pause to mourn and remember those men and women who paid the ultimate price defending our freedom.
Memorial Day is nearing its 150th anniversary, and given that it came about in the wake of the Civil War, it seems appropriate that there is still some debate between the North and South about its exact origin.
Many claim it started in Mississippi when widows of Confederate soldiers decorated the nearby graves of Union soldiers, knowing the families of these men were grieving as well. Two dozen other towns in Georgia, Virginia, Illinois and Pennsylvania also cite themselves as the birthplace.
It wasn’t until 1966, however, that Congress settled the issue, at least officially, when it declared that Memorial Day first began in Waterloo, New York. Five years later, the holiday was designated to always be on the last Monday in May.
No matter where it began, the first large observance could not have been held in a more fitting place: Arlington National Cemetery, whose 150th anniversary was last week.
This cemetery is on land that once belonged to Confederate General Robert E. Lee and, earlier, the adopted son of President George Washington. Now, it is the final resting place for 400,000 brave men and women who put their country before themselves.
Altogether, more than 42 million people have served our country in the Armed Forces, of which 1.3 million paid the ultimate sacrifice. Nearly half of those casualties were in the Civil War, or more than the United States lost overall during World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Kentuckians have a long history of going above and beyond to answer the call of duty. Our state, for example, saw more soldiers die than every other state combined during the War of 1812.
Kentucky is now home to 339,000 veterans. Those in their sixties compose the biggest age group, and there are a little more than 17,000 who are 85 or older, according to the latest survey. We also, of course, have a large group of men and women serving at Fort Campbell, Fort Knox and in the National Guard and the Reserves, and they have played outsized roles in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as federal base realignments here at home.
If you are a veteran or are still in the Armed Forces, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for all that you have done and continue to do. Your contributions have preserved the values on which our country was built, and that will never be forgotten.
As we commemorate Memorial Day this weekend with parades and ceremonies, I encourage everyone to take part if at all possible. If you cannot, I hope you will take at least a moment on Monday to think about those who gave all they had on our behalf.
Events like these are important because, as President Calvin Coolidge once said, “The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.”