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Remember the Meaning of Memorial Day

Memorial Day has become a great celebration for families to mark the official kickoff of the summer season. People enjoy parades, cookouts and all kinds of sales across America. It’s great to have fun and celebrate summer; but we also want to remember the true meaning of Memorial Day. 

Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country. The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery.

Today, cities in the North and the South claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1866. Both Macon and Columbus, Ga., claim the title, as well as Richmond, Va. The village of Boalsburg, Pa., claims it began there two years earlier. A stone in a Carbondale, Ill., cemetery carries the statement that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was the wartime home of Gen. Logan. Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the war dead were buried.

In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. Supporters of Waterloo’s claim say earlier observances in other places were either informal, not community-wide or one-time events.

By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.

It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May.

To ensure the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.

The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day."

This year, please take some time to honor the brave men and women that have served our country. One organization that is dedicated to honoring our servicemembers every day of the year is the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore (USO-Metro). This is a wonderful nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that is dedicated to "serving those who serve, and their families" in the Washington-Baltimore region. With the help of nearly 5,000 volunteers, USO-Metro provides programs and services for active duty troops and their families at area military hospitals and local military bases; through their Mobile USO program; at six USO Centers, and four USO airport lounges.

Volunteering with USO-Metro is a great way to honor our servicemembers and make a direct impact. There are many different types of programs, so you can choose where you feel your skills and interest will be most effective. The generous support of individuals and organizations in the local community is what allows USO-Metro to fulfill its mission. You can find out more about getting involved with USO-Metro here.

And have a wonderful, memorable Memorial Day!

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