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In elementary school, at least in my day, when you made a good grade, the teacher would put a gold star on your paper.
Getting a gold star could make a kid’s day.
If you’re a mom, however, getting a gold star could darken all the rest of your days.
Families who have a son or daughter serving in active duty military are “Blue Star Families,” and often mark the status in their home’s window with a small white flag trimmed in red, with a blue star in the center.
If one of those serving is killed in combat, the star changes from blue to gold. Blue Star Families have great pride in their loved ones, but no one wants to become a Gold Star Family.
These star flags are American traditions dating back to World War I.
Going back further, to the end of the Civil War, America formalized the recognition of its war fallen with Decoration Day. Decoration Day evolved into Memorial Day which, for many years, was set as May 30. Then in 1971, 50 years ago, the U.S. government established Memorial Day as a federal holiday, to be celebrated the last Monday in May.
Americans love the concept of the three-day weekend, and our traditional summers are bookended by Memorial Day weekend in May and Labor Day weekend in September, with the Independence Day celebration in between.
However, the vacation aspects of these federal holidays sometimes take a front seat over the real meaning of the days. We Americans typically mark Memorial Day by shopping big sales. And, of course, it’s hard to let the day go by without putting some burgers and hot dogs on the grill.
Those things are fine, and provide good opportunities for us to be with loved ones.
But let’s make a point this year to set aside some time to recognize the reason for Memorial Day.
If yours is one of the unfortunate families who lost someone in combat, you probably honor your hero with a vigil, altar, remembrance, prayers or a combination of those.
The rest of us can also find ways to commemorate the day. It could be putting flowers on the grave of one who made the supreme sacrifice. Maybe it’s reading a book or an article about a war or a battle. There have been some powerful movies made on the subject of war and sacrifice; watching one can remind us of the cost of our freedoms.
If you’re going to watch a movie, here are some recommendations. Each of these movies deal with the horror and bravery, as well as the emotional and psychological complexities, of war: “The Longest Day” (WWII, D-Day), “The Hurt Locker” (Iraq War), “Sergeant York” (WWI), “Platoon” (Vietnam), “The Best Years of Our Lives” (WWII).
New Mexico has an important military history, and there are some war movies with ties to our state. There are several movies about the Bataan Death March, which included a lot of New Mexicans, and is commemorated with an annual event at White Sands Missile Range. “The Story of G.I. Joe” is about the great WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle, who lived much of his life in Albuquerque, and died in the line of duty.
I recently learned “The Red Badge of Courage” (Civil War), perhaps my favorite war movie, has a New Mexico connection. The movie’s star is Audie Murphy, a war hero himself. One of the supporting actors is Bill Mauldin, a New Mexican who gained fame during WWII for his nationally syndicated political cartoons about soldiers Willie and Joe.
Between them, Pyle and Mauldin earned three Pulitzer Prizes.
Pyle’s books are the best resource I’ve found for understanding the day-to-day personal challenges, big and small, of individual soldiers. He told the human story of war in a simple, honest way.
Most years around Memorial Day, I make time to walk through a cemetery. Often, the veterans’ graves are clearly marked. Sometimes, the dates of the deceased’s life provide clues to whether someone may have died in war.
In Las Cruces, we are fortunate to have Veterans Memorial Park, with several solemnly beautiful monuments and markers to recognize the accomplishments and sacrifices of our fellow Americans.
However you choose to mark the day, make a point to honor and recognize not only the fallen, but also the pain and sacrifice of the families they left behind.