Why Memorial Day Matters to Me

Because I stood where my compatriots in Iraq died and I was sometimes present while their sacred remains still lay on the battlefield.

Because I prayed with dying soldiers at an aid station, witnessing their faith and courage in their final hours.

Because I counseled soldiers who did their best to care for their mortally wounded comrades.

Because I watched a soldier collapse in agony when he received the news that his best friend had been killed.

Because I was present at memorial ceremonies in theater where teammates mourned for their friends with tears.

Because I listened to the nearly unbearable sound of the first sergeant calling the final roll call, the memorial detail firing three volleys, and the bugler playing taps.

Because I waited with Casualty Notification Officers for the next of kin to open the door, so that we could deliver the worst news a wife or a mother could ever receive.

Because I stood on the tarmac waiting for the flag-draped remains of a soldier to be returned to his family.

Because I walked with widows and their children into chapels and churches where they would say good-bye to their husbands and fathers.

Because I sat with grieving parents as they prepared to bury their sons and daughters.

Because I walked in front of a horse-drawn caisson to the beat of a drum, to bear the fallen to their final resting place.

Because I proclaimed the gospel’s promises and led the liturgy of death and resurrection beside a flag-draped bier.

Because I looked into the eyes of widows and mothers when I knelt to present the flag of the United States of America on behalf of a grateful nation.

Because I spent time with surviving spouses who were trying to move ahead with their lives.

Because whenever I visit Arlington National Cemetery or the war memorials downtown, I see veterans and families who are not there as tourists, but as pilgrims, trying their best to overcome the pain that has lasted for years, and seeking to keep the memory of their friends and loved ones alive.

That’s why Memorial Day is important to me.

Pastors,  some of the people in your pews have endured the same suffering as the people with whom I ministered. You should know that this is what many of them will be thinking about on Memorial Day weekend. Simply honor the memories of the dead and remember those who are still grieving. The sign near the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington says, “Silence and respect.” That’s a good tone to take. If you were not there, you will not understand, but you can still stand in loving solidarity beside those who hurt.

You might also acknowledge that those who put themselves in harm’s way did so because they were trying to do a good thing for their communities, without editorializing either for or against the causes in which the nation employed them. This is not about politics. Please don’t coopt the dead for your own purposes, either to rally people to the national flag or to trample on it. Just surround those who have suffered so much with your love, and respect the lives of the fallen.

And pray for peace.