Memorial Day: Not Just A Day Off From Work

In a couple of weeks, the nation will pause on Monday, May 25th to celebrate Memorial Day.

Well, many Americans will celebrate Memorial Day. I suspect that many more will simply take a day off from work, sleep late, not shave or put on make-up, probably watch mega-movie or TV-series marathons and maybe grill out. I believe that a very small percentage will go to their local Memorial Day celebration or even take time during the day to reflect on why they are not working.

I admit I don’t have any scientific surveys to support my theory and I don’t have specific numbers to back up my claim. Call it observation. Numbers can be manipulated and made to show what somebody wants them to--but here are a few numbers to ponder. 

I’ve seen some accounts that say less than one percent of Americans have served in the military; other sources say it’s closer to 7 percent when you add up all the active duty, retired, and veteran service members.

I’ve also seen sources that say 61 percent of Americans have an immediate family member who is or has served in the military.

There are roughly 320 million Americans; I’ve read that if everyone lined up single file we would wrap around the earth about seven times.

So by simple math if you use the larger estimation of 7 percent of Americans who have served in the military, that’s about 22 million people out of 320 million who have actually served. 

 If we assume that the 61 percent figure is accurate, then one would also assume that about 195 million people will be out on Memorial Day doing something that demonstrates their appreciation for the sacrifices made by their family members for their freedom; or mourning the loss of a loved one in that endeavor. This doesn’t include those who were seriously injured or who carry psychological wounds.

If you add the 195 million to the 22 million, that’s 217 million, more than half of Americans who you could assume would truly grasp the importance of Memorial Day and would turn out in force to celebrate.

Memorial Day is meant to celebrate the lives of those who gave them in service to the nation.  While this includes military service members, it can also be extended to other Americans such as those in three-letter agencies (CIA, FBI, etc.) whose deaths were even less celebrated than those in the military. It could also include those who were in medical corps serving in war zones.

My point in this somewhat disjointed Week-Ender is that I don’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling that a majority of Americans truly understand what it means to be prepared to die for what their nation stands for. I suspect that an even greater majority fails to appreciate or comprehend the sacrifice made by the millions who have died in our history.

I have to admit I struggle every Memorial Day. I listen to all the politicians and government officials giving speeches memorializing those who have died--yet very few of those speech-givers have served and fewer still have sons or daughters who have. 

I watch as businesses take advantage of the day off to host “biggest-ever” Memorial Day sales and fly flags to give the impression that they understand the true meaning of the day; but do they really? Is their show of support tied to the sale? Does the additional revenue generated by piggybacking on the day-off equal their demonstration of understanding?

I go to local Memorial Day services and I don’t see even a fraction of a majority of the population out at local celebrations. 

 For example, in the last city where I lived, we had about 37,000 residents, yet only about 1,200 showed up for well-publicized events. That’s about 3 percent of the population--what were the rest of them doing? The percentage isn’t much better in the current city where I reside--and it’s a military town!

The truth is that most Americans today don’t really have to be prepared to sacrifice a lot in order to be an American. Public safety people aside, most of us do not expect to face a direct threat to our physical safety or to our family’s. Why? Because there are others who volunteer to take that risk for us. It has been said that for those who serve, freedom has a taste that the protected shall never know.

However, people fail to realize that it’s a mean old world out there and no matter how much we would all love a world of peace and prosperity, mankind has not yet achieved that level of awareness. There are savage people who would do bad things to those who do not have the strength to defend themselves, or who do not have defenders willing and able to do it.

Celebrating Memorial Day is important. It is intended to keep a spirit of sacrifice alive in the hearts and minds of those who benefit from others’ sacrifices in the past. It is meant as a reminder of the vigilance that has kept us safe in the past so that we can freely choose how we remember sacrifices of the past--or to not remember at all.

I don’t mean to minimize the many, many Americans who will truly live the spirit of the day.  I applaud and encourage their efforts. However, I have reservations about how many that will be. I doubt it will approach half of Americans. I suspect much fewer than that.

But to those who do I extend my thanks and appreciation and I only hope others will be influenced by their actions and choose to do something to remember that many have sacrificed so that they can have the freedom to take a day off from work.

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