Memorial Day is on Monday but for the veterans in our town we’ve been fully into Memorial Day mode for some time now. The veterans of our local Veterans Council, VFW and American Legion of which I’m involved with,  do all the planning and coordination for our town’s local Memorial Day parade and visit all of the local schools for their Memorial Day programs.

Our small town, a bucolic little burg in Central Massachusetts of just about 13,000 people have traditionally done right by their veterans and the military community and don’t just go thru the motions with a program for Memorial and Veterans Day, but seek to educate the young people of the town with not just the history of these days but why they are important and in the end they come away with a deeper understanding and respect for the entire process.

One innovation that one of the schools did last Veterans Day was instead of having a typical program that took up an hour of the day, the program was very short on the history behind it. And then the school had veterans attending, get assigned to a 5th or 6th Grade classroom and talk about their own experiences and then the students could ask questions about whatever they chose about anything pertaining to military life.

It was a huge success. Our local Veterans Council has members from World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, Panama, and Desert Storm as well as the current Global War on Terror. The principal relayed to me that the students came away with a much deeper respect of what constitutes Veterans Day and the sacrifices that a military life entails.

But we’re far from perfect. We’ve already visited three different schools this week and as this goes live, we’ll be finishing off another visit to our local high school. One of the things that are most uncomfortable for veterans on this weekend is when well-meaning, but unknowing citizens in town greet us at the school with a “Thank You for your service, and a have a Happy Memorial Day.”

To veterans that is an uncomfortable comment. While there has never been any malice or ill-will intended by these comments from our townspeople, it isn’t a true “happy” holiday. While some vets will look back upon those departed comrades, forever young from long ago and think of the happy times they spent together or as General George S. Patton Jr. wrote, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”

Memorial Day isn’t a happy holiday, it is a time for solemn remembrance of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we all get to enjoy. And the longest wars in our history that are still unfolding are reminders that the price for freedom is very steep and continues to be paid in blood on a daily basis. I mean, no one says “Happy Pearl Harbor Day”, rather we say “Remember Pearl Harbor”.

But there are still those who are willing to put their lives and futures on the line and take their place in the long lines of veterans who have served our country. Several high schoolers are waiting only for graduation before they ship out for basic training.

But back to the day, it isn’t a celebration. We will march once again in our town’s parade and truth be told, I’ve always hated marching and drill and ceremonies. We were never very big on either of those in Special Forces. But as we’ve told people countless times in the past few weeks/years, this isn’t about us. Veterans Day is about those of us who are still around. This is about those who never got a chance to come home and have that family barbecue surrounded by relatives and loved ones.

And while it is perfectly acceptable to have a solemn remembrance, like a parade for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and then celebrate their existence, (haven’t we all raised a glass to a close friend or comrade who didn’t “beat the clock?”) with a barbecue.

While we’ll celebrate the lives of those who passed on and be thankful for their service and sacrifice it isn’t a true, “happy” holiday. We’ll march in memory of those who can no longer answer the call.

I personally love what the people do in Israel on their own version of Memorial Day. Yom Hazikaron begins at 8:00 p.m. the night before. All places of entertainment are closed and the television stations broadcast stories of those who passed in the line of duty. Then on the actual Memorial Day, A two-minute siren is sounded at 11:00 at which time everything stops including traffic and the country goes totally silent. However, that would never happen here in the United States.

So to answer the question others have asked, what is the proper etiquette for greeting veterans on Memorial Day? That is a great one, but the one I’d go with is “We’ll Remember on Memorial Day.” You can’t go wrong with that one.

And yes, after the parade and the ceremonies at all the cemeteries (five) are done on Monday, we’ll hoist the flag back up to full staff at noon and retire to the VFW with all of the citizens who care to join and we will celebrate. We’ll celebrate and toast the men and women who gave us the freedoms we enjoy. They paid the tab, and we get to enjoy the rest of the day.

Photo: Civil War section of the local cemetery, the Grand Army of the Republic section. Author photo