The Thing About Freedom

Remembering Americans who have died to preserve our freedom.

This past Monday the nation celebrated another Memorial Day, an annual ritual where many people say many lofty things about the importance of remembering Americans who have died to preserve our freedom.

The enduring thing about freedom, ironically enough, is that it is never free; the tragic thing about it is that far too many Americans don’t truly understand that fact.

I don’t mean to generalize or disparage all the well-meaning Americans who truly do understand and celebrate the purpose of the day and don’t just consider it another federal holiday or another reason to market a retail sale campaign.

It’s possible that among the current population of about 320-million Americans maybe half take time to go to a Memorial Day event in their community or at least take a few minutes out from parties or relaxation to think about the past and current sacrifices that enable them to relax or have a party.

But if my assumption of half the population holds true, then at least 160-million Americans don’t embrace the true reason for the day, for whatever reason.

Many probably haven’t had any direct connection to someone who died in service to the nation. The Pew Research Center noted that during the past decade or so, as the military has engaged in the longest period of sustained conflict in the nation’s history, just 0.5% of the American population has served on active duty at any given time. At the height of World War II, the comparable figure was nearly 9%. Other sources echo that statistic.

So, .5 percent of 320 million is about 16 million. Let’s assume that for every active-duty person there is an average of ten additional people directly impacted by that service--mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children, close relatives or friends.  So that’s 160-million people who are closely associated with the potential sacrifice needed to maintain a free condition, which puts us at that halfway mark of the total population.

We could further note that active-duty military members don’t make the only sacrifices.  There is a whole network of homeland security men and women who work tirelessly to ensure day-to=day safety of all Americans. There are also clergy, medical people and others who serve. Some of them die in that service. They, too, have families and friends who are affected. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll say they collectively make up another 20 million.

So now we’re a little over half the population who may actually have a personal investment in freedom, enough so to take time to honestly and deeply celebrate Memorial Day for its true intent.

That still leaves just under half of the American population who are not close enough to the source of sacrifice--that being a human life--that is made with the underlying intent of preserving freedom.

Perhaps a parade I went to in my local area on Memorial Day will illustrate my point.

Memorial Day Parade. Beaufort, SC

At the very head of the parade there were veterans groups--the VFW, American Legion, a color guard, etc.--then followed a procession of exposure and outright advertising for various groups, organizations, businesses and non-profits. After the first few I had to ask myself; what does this have to do with Memorial Day?

Perhaps just the fact that we live in a free society that enables us to have a parade without fear of reprisal should give me solace.  But somewhere after the first few parade entries it lost touch with Memorial Day.

Perhaps the most meaningful entry in the parade was the most down-played, least decorated one; it was one young man, marching all by himself with no uniform, no sign, just him in street clothes carrying a new American flag on a crude wooden staff. He marched, eyes straight ahead, not waving to the crowd but focused on keeping the flag in the air.

I don’t know who this young man was or why he did it, but to me, this anonymous man said more with his entry than all the colorful, loud and in many cases commercialized entries; because it has been unnamed men and women like him who have carried the flag through the centuries, not caring to be identified with anything other than being a free American. Many have died in that cause so that this young man could carry that brand-new flag in a parade without being fired upon, without fear of reprisal.

Indeed, consider the contrast of that shiny new flag with the one that flew over Fort McHenry 200 years ago, the tattered and shredded flag that encouraged Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would eventually become our National Anthem.

The National Anthem was played countless times on Memorial Day across the nation; I wonder how many people know of the flag that inspired that poem-turned-song; how it was battered and blown to bits after a night of British bombardment, then replaced with a new, larger one to signal all in view that the Americans were holding.

This gesture may have seemed small at the time, but it proved to be a turning point in the War of 1812, known as the second American Revolution.  It is small actions like this and that young man in my local parade who have made all the difference.

That’s the thing about freedom; it always comes at a price and the mark of a free people is whether or not they are willing to pay the price to obtain or maintain freedom.

The thing about freedom is that, once obtained, eternal vigilance is required to keep it; and that’s something to remember – not just on Memorial Day, but every day.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email