Three Volleys for this Memorial Day
Memorial Day could use a reintroduction in certain circles. Too many people fail to understand or appreciate its significance and symbolism. Allow me to try to offer some perspective.
Recently, I caught a few minutes of a national sports broadcast on television; something I rarely watch. They were discussing the upcoming NBA Finals and if you’re from Cleveland, you’re paying attention. However, the anchors in studio and the reporter on the ground in Cleveland were discussing a possible Monday barbeque and “the Finals can’t get here fast enough” and “what’s Memorial Day anyway? This is the Finals.”
Now, before I try to make any correction, I want to touch on the irony of the statement and shed some light on the ongoing confusion surrounding Memorial Day.
Here we have a reporter for some news source ─ whether he be local or with a national network ─ preparing to go live and use Memorial Day as a sideshow to professional sports. Make no mistake, I am a sports fan too, but as a nation we are starting this week with a different kind of final; one that President Lincoln called the last full measure of devotion. Memorial Day is meant to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. What they gave to their great nation was final. All gave some, some gave all. So, when we talk about The Finals, as in basketball, it can wait a day.
One of my responsibilities while serving in the Army was being assigned to a funeral detail. This is where you’re chosen to conduct the burial of deceased soldiers that live in the district of the post. It was an honor that I am most proud of. While stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington, a group of us trained and practiced folding Old Glory and firing blanks from our M-16’s for a couple of weeks it seemed. To this day, every honorably discharged servicemember receives the 21 Gun Salute at their burial service. If you’ve never witnessed one, it includes a team of riflemen in a line who fire three volleys into the air. If you have trouble with sudden noises, you’ll be reminded. If you’re patriotic, you’ll feel the volleys in your veins and it’s important to keep in mind the deceased’s next of kin, because they can feel the volleys in their heart.
The history behind the three volleys is fascinating with its symbolism and dates to the 1600’s. During European dynastic wars, the three volleys were fired onto a battlefield to denote a pause in the action so that either side could tend to their dead. Once the dead were cared for, the battle would commence. In keeping with this symbolism, three bullets are wrapped inside the folded flag during the burial service and then presented to the next of kin. The bullets represent the three volleys from battle and the words, duty, honor, country.
Another confusion surrounding military holidays such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day is who to honor, who to say thank you to, ceremonies to attend and so on. Although there really isn’t a wrong answer if you’re putting forth the effort, the true answer comes down to one word: reflection. It’s about reflecting on our past battles and wars and names like Johnson, Murphy and Sullivan and countless others; names that seem so ordinary but each one comes with a lineage, a family and a commitment that eventually cost them their lives.
Everyone that has ever taken the oath of enlistment realizes that there is a chance of never coming home and at certain times in our nation’s history, that chance was much greater than today. For those who did not return, who went missing, who died on the Western Front or in the jungles of Vietnam and countless other theatres throughout the world, Memorial Day is for honoring and reflecting their sacrifices, so that we could celebrate our freedoms. The sovereignty and liberties that we enjoy every day are not free ─ someone died for it.
The customs and traditions surrounding these holidays are plentiful and have taken years to evolve. Some of the duties and responsibilities that our servicemen and women must perform can be both honorable and challenging. Sometimes the Army will ask them to perform difficult tasks that must be handled with absolute precision and care.
Perhaps the most difficult of duties that a servicemember could face in their military career ─ one that requires a different kind of bravery ─ is that of Casualty Notification Officer, or CNO. This non-commissioned officer has been assigned the duty of notifying the next of kin that their loved one was a casualty of war. They are given a small window of time to receive orders, locate the next of kin, find the best time to contact them, familiarize themselves with the location of the deceased’s home, memorize tasks and orders and then take what could be the longest march of their career — to the front porch of the next of kin.
If not this Memorial Day, then maybe next, our thoughts and reflection should be on those front porches across this great nation, in the Midwest neighborhoods, from the Deep South to the Great Plains ─ reflect and remember the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters who received word from a CNO in Class A’s, along with a chaplain that their son or daughter, husband or wife was killed in action.
This is what Memorial Day is about.
Nothing a person can say or do will ever heal the wound of a parent who watched their son or daughter leave for Basic Training or Boot Camp only to come home through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in a flag-draped coffin. Not only is it important to reflect upon that, it’s of equal importance that we never forget.
Thank you for reading.