It has always bothered me that we “celebrate” Memorial Day and nearly forget Armed Forces Day. Memorial Day, as the name suggests, is a time to remember. Armed Forces Day, which for the past 60 years has honored Americans serving in the military, is more suited for celebration. You see, the honorees for Armed Forces Day aren’t dead. It’s the difference between a birthday and a funeral.
But, do you know when Armed Forces Day is?
Don’t feel bad. Not many people do. Armed Forces Day is the third Saturday in May. Memorial Day comes soon after, on the last Monday in May, and almost no one misses it. How could you with all the sales fliers and the promise of hot dogs and hamburgers? Oh, and a day off of work, of course.
We Americans have gotten this all backwards. If you really consider what Memorial Day means — honoring dead soldiers — then 20-percent-off sales and backyard parties seem incredibly jarring. Sadly, over time, Memorial Day has lost its significance. I’m not sure the next generation will think it’s anything more than a three-day weekend.
This is why, for our 22nd Dinner with the Smileys, which fell between Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day, I arranged to have my boys do something I knew wouldn’t be easy: We visited a cemetery to place flags at veterans’ graves. The reason it wouldn’t be easy is because all three of my children — ages 11, 9 and 5 — are at different stages of understanding death, sacrifice and service. How would I manage an 11-year-old who realizes the veterans in the graves were serving their country, just like his deployed dad, and a 5-year old who thinks people who are buried are “just asleep”?
Our guest was U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who represents Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and serves on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. We met at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Bangor, which at 178 years old is the second-oldest garden cemetery in America. (It’s also where Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” was filmed, but I couldn’t tell the kids that. They were already nervous enough.)
Members from the local Veterans of Foreign Wars met us at 9 a.m. with handfuls of American flags on wooden sticks. We were given our instructions: All the graves marked with “veteran” were to receive a flag. Spouses of the veterans were not.
We each took several flags (“Don’t let them touch the ground,” my oldest son instructed the others) and set off down separate rows to read the tombstones. Lindell, 5, went with Michaud. If you’ve already seen pictures from this “Dinner” on the Dinner with the Smileys Facebook page, you know that something special happened between the congressman and Lindell. I don’t know if Michaud reminded Lindell of his dad, or maybe his grandfather, but he took to him instantly. Lindell hugged his arms, rode on his shoulders and basically stayed right by the congressman’s side throughout the entire 8-hour event.
Michaud and his district representative, Chris Winstead, told Lindell that he would be their helper finding all the graves marked with “veteran.”
“That sounds good, but there’s just one problem. I can’t read,” Lindell said. Eventually they worked it out: grown-ups did the reading and Lindell placed the flags.
My middle son, Owen, 9, was especially quiet at the cemetery. He spent a lot of time on his own, consumed by understanding each of the veterans’ story. Occasionally he reappeared to solemnly tell me what he’d found: “That one died when he was only 20, Mom. And that man’s wife lived for 26 years after he died.”
I didn’t get to place many flags because I was busy helping the kids, but like Owen, I was struck by the wife who lived 26 years without her veteran husband. According to the rules, she couldn’t receive a flag. But hadn’t she served? Didn’t she sacrifice just as much, and maybe even more?
The boys and I talked about the unfairness of it. Ford said that spouses “put up with a lot” when they are married to someone in the military. Owen said the woman lived a long time missing her husband because of his service.
I looked over my shoulder for the other volunteers and quietly asked Ford and Owen to give me one of the flags in their bundle. They knew what I was about to do. Together, we went to a spouse’s grave and gave her a flag. Then we placed flags at several more.
After the cemetery, we followed Michaud to a local assisted living facility, where he presented a 92-year-old veteran with medals for his service. In the pictures, you can see how enthralled the boys were. Their mouths hung open. No one said a word. I’m sure they realized that in another few years, this man in front of them will be one of the veterans at Mt. Hope.
Will anyone remember to give him a flag?
Answer: My boys will. And they’ll give his wife one, too.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.