Whenever I am given the opportunity to share my thoughts concerning military service, I have always predicated my message with the passage “We stand on the shoulders of giants…,” meaning those service members who have gone before us – their accomplishments, their achievements, their experiences and their sacrifices. From them and their histories, we can glean wisdom, and all they have done can be used as a part of our foundations toward greater excellence. That passage and its meaning take on an even stronger emphasis when placed within the perspective of Memorial Day.
History books and historians will point out that Memorial Day was first widely observed in May 1868, as a celebration to commemorate the sacrifices of service members in the Civil War, and participants of that event decorated the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. Since World War I, the day has turned into a celebration of honor and remembrance for those service members who died in all of America’s wars. It was not until 1971, that President Richard Nixon declared Memorial Day a national holiday, with the United States observing it on the last Monday of May each year.
But somewhere along the way, it appears that the tradition has become muddled, that it has become more about the start of summer, backyard barbecues, beach trips, fireworks, ice cream, hot dogs and sales at the stores.
It is in these times and situations that I am grateful to live in Aiken and our wonderful community. Aiken supports its military citizens – active duty, National Guard, reserves, veterans and retirees. We are not a military town (though a quick search will show the Aiken Airport was originally constructed during World War II by the United States Army Air Forces and was a U.S. Air Force Air Defense Station until 1975), but we are definitely a patriotic town. That patriotism truly shows itself during our Memorial Day period.
Aiken is one of very few cities in South Carolina that still has a Memorial Day parade. Originally started by the Marine Corps League – James L. Hammons Detachment No. 939 – it has been continued by a dedicated group of citizens and is now presented by the Aiken County Veterans Affairs Office and the Aiken County Veterans Council. All of these men and women, from the “giants” who initiated the parade to the current committee – comprised of veterans and non-veterans, community leaders and citizens – all carry that patriotic fire in their hearts and reverence in their minds to honor those who died in defense of this great nation. We all believe it is important to continue the tradition of a Memorial Day Parade in Aiken and to generate within our communities’ opportunities to talk about and educate our future generations on why we really observe Memorial Day – to honor those who wore the uniform in defense of our nation and who were killed protecting our freedoms. The veterans you see in our parade are there to represent and honor their fallen comrades – those who did not make it back.
As I stated, this event has come together and been supported through the years by our patriotic community – veterans and non-veterans alike. Where can you find such a strong grassroots effort to honor and remember our military and their sacrifices? Each year, school children submit their artistic efforts towards the design of poster to advertise for the event; businesses provide donations to ensure financial support for the event; volunteers boldly step forward to assist in parade planning, execution and support of the event; wonderful individuals and organizations who decorate vehicles and floats, and march through the streets to celebrate, honor and remember our military fallen in the event. Families, friends and neighbors fill the sidewalks on Park Avenue and Laurens Street to watch the parade? This is about Aiken celebrating, remembering and honoring those who gave all in support of our nation. I have seen broad smiles on faces everywhere, children’s eyes going wide in awe of spectacle, veterans standing and giving a salute, and always I see those faces in the crowd with tears running down cheeks as they remember loved ones who sacrificed so much. This is a chance for everyone to be a part of something bigger, to come together and show that Aiken, our town, does not forget the sacrifices made by our service members and their families, the chance for us to remember and honor them.
I also hope and pray that after the parade is over, and the little flags that are held in hands and waved as the bands and floats go by are put away, that the family events do take place, like cookouts and barbecues, because it should be a time for family and remembrance. I also hope that families have a conversation about what Memorial Day really means and why we celebrate.
Dwight Bradham Jr. is retired for the U.S. Army and is director of the Aiken County Veterans Affairs Office.