We Must Remember on Memorial Day
The unofficial start to summer kicks off this weekend with cookouts, pool parties, and beach getaways. As a combat veteran who has lost friends to the scourge of war, I want to provide the following public service announcement. Enjoy the holiday weekend but please find time to celebrate Memorial Day the right way. Whatever you do, avoid these holiday greetings: “Thank you for your service” and “Happy Memorial Day.”
My participation in the George W. Bush Institute’s Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program made me aware that as we make progress improving outcomes for veterans in education, employment and well-being we need to do more to bridge the growing military-civilian divide in this country. And this effort starts with clearing the confusion around one of America’s most misunderstood holidays—Memorial Day.
On Memorial Day, Americans should pause to remember the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives—fighting on battlefields in places near and far and in wars past and present—all done in service to their country. For Gold Star families and friends of the fallen, the holiday is more about solemnity—honoring and remembering lives lost to war—than happiness. And if you want to thank a veteran, save it for Veterans Day or any other day of the year.
While trust in public institutions is eroding, the military finds itself in a position that famous comedian Rodney Dangerfield would envy, it gets all kinds of respect. In a recent study, 87 percent of Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in the military. Americans may have faith in the military, but ignorance of the institution is increasing, as more Americans are no longer personally connected to those who serve.
A 2011 Pew survey revealed a generational divide over familiarity with our men and women in uniform. More than three-quarters of American adults, ages 50 and over, have an immediate family member who served in the military, but that percentage drops to only one-third for adults ages 18 to 29. One key demographic group missing from this study is America’s youth.
During my time as a teacher, most of my students didn’t have family connections to the military and entered the classroom knowing next to nothing about it. Many couldn’t identify the five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces or describe the significance of military-connected events in history, like D-Day. And most troubling, they didn’t even know America was at war.
But don’t blame the students and teachers for this failure. The role of the military in supporting and defending our democracy is not an essential component for most civics education curriculum across the country. Even though the Pentagon, the symbol of our nation’s military, is located in Virginia, The History and Social Science Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools for U.S. Government does not require students to demonstrate any knowledge of the military and its crucial functions at home and abroad. This is unacceptable when you consider fewer Americans are serving in the military and the veteran population is declining rapidly. In the future, stories of actual military service will no longer be passed down by a grandparent. The only chance to learn about the military will have to take place in the classroom.
Changes to the curriculum is a good start but it will only do so much if new learning standards focus on identifying facts and analyzing abstract ideas. Ignorance of the military can only be overcome if a curriculum humanizes the subject. What better way to do that than by sharing impactful stories of individuals who best represent the values of the military, such as the story of Sgt. Kyle White.
On November 9, 2007, White’s unit was ambushed on a rugged mountainside in Afghanistan. During the hours long battle, White exposed himself to withering enemy fire multiple times to provide medical aid to his wounded comrades, and with communications down, he risked his life to secure a working radio.
“He then provided information and updates to friendly forces, allowing precision airstrikes to stifle the enemy’s attack and ultimately permitting medical evacuation to rescue him, his fellow soldiers, Marines, and Afghan army soldiers,” reads his Medal of Honor citation.
Earlier this month, I was honored to meet Sgt. White. During our conversation, we both agreed that something needs to be done to clear up the national confusion around the celebration of Memorial Day. Educators should take advantage of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation (CMOH) resources, including its Medal of Honor Character Development Program. Superintendents, principals and teachers seeking ways to introduce the military to their students should utilize this curriculum. I wish I had been aware of this resource when I was teaching.
White told me that service doesn’t mean you have to wear the uniform, and he’s right. Educators are serving this country too, by providing the next generation with the tools necessary to succeed in the future and helping them become better citizens. A good citizen must understand the military and those who serve and sacrifice in it.
As a responsible corporate citizen, Lockheed Martin has a role to play in encouraging greater awareness and appreciation of the military among the civilian population, including doing our part to honor and recognize Memorial Day the right way. We do this through supporting the CMOH foundation efforts to share the stories of Medal of Honor recipients with students across the country. Our employees contribute and volunteer for organizations that care for the families of our fallen heroes, such as the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. And we make sure to spotlight the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform through our sponsorship of the National Memorial Day Concert.
Americans should have fun this holiday weekend. But they should take time on Memorial Day to engage in acts of remembrance by visiting memorials and veteran cemeteries, watching the National Memorial Day Concert, or supporting groups that care for the families of our fallen heroes. And if you’re too busy, remember that a story told is not forgotten. Please find a few minutes in the day to read the stories of ultimate sacrifice, such as the six men killed who fought alongside Sgt. White on November 9, 2007: Sgt. Phillip Bocks, Capt. Matthew Ferrara, Spc. Joseph Lancour, Cpl. Sean Langevin, Sgt. Jeffrey Mersman, and Cpl. Lester Roque. Their legacy lives on when we share their stories. We must take time to remember and honor the lives lost to war on Memorial Day.
Brian Thompson was a 2018 Stand-To Veteran Leadership Scholar and is currently the Manager of Military and Veteran Programs at Lockheed Martin.