As the son of Navy fighter pilot, I was taught three things at a very early age:
1. To always thank a veteran when you saw him or her; 2. To always honor those veterans who gave the ultimate sacrifice; and 3: To never forget those veterans that have yet to make it home.
Memorial Day, my dad would stress, was all about the second of these teachings.
Leading up to Memorial Day, my dad and I would sit outside a local convenience store in Morris selling poppies to benefit his local Bethlehem American Legion Post 146. My father, and other members of Post 146, would spend hours making sure veteran grave markers had American flags at the two cemeteries in town.
Memorial Day itself would be spent at the Bethlehem Memorial Day parade, an event that seemingly the entire town would attend decked out in red, white, and blue. If you lived in Bethlehem, you were likely either marching in the parade or a spectator. Sunny Ridge, our lone supermarket, would hand out free ice pops to kids before closing at noon right before the 20-minute parade made its way through town to the green for dignitary remarks and a loud gun salute.
My dad was the starter for this parade and a constant presence with his clipboard with the parade lineup on it. I remember the handwritten list starting very specifically with Volunteer Fire Department, Volunteer Ambulance, etc. and then ending fairly generally with things like kids on tractors, quads, and trikes. Of course, the parade would not be complete without candy being tossed by the participants to young ones as they scrambled to collect a Starburst or two.
I can still hear the sounds of the sirens leading the parade and feel the excitement seeing the lead car make its way down Main Street. Each year it was a truly memorable day, and played out in similar scenes throughout the country.
I now live in Waterbury, where the Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee dedicates itself to honoring Veterans 365 days a year, but with a special emphasis on Memorial Day. This year, they will be dedicating a monument to the seven service members from Waterbury who made the ultimate sacrifice in the global war on terror.
These annual acts of honor are much needed pauses, and our patriotic unity during these Memorial Day traditions binds us all. Unfortunately, too often, the moment we leave the town green or monument dedications we descend back to our current default of conflict with one another.
These days our methods to communicate have never been greater, yet our ability to listen has never been less.
Our access to information has never been easier, yet we intentionally limit the information we absorb. We immediately accept anything we see reaffirming our own opinions and just as quickly dismiss anything in opposition. One difference of opinion tends to completely negate any opportunity to seek areas of agreement. In short, day after day, choices are made not to mutually understand one another, but instead to mutually destruct each other.
Trust me, I know it’s a challenge these days not to react in ways that focus on our differences and drive us further to our corners. I am guilty of it more than I would like to admit.
We must change this pattern, and this change begins with all of us. More and more frequently we call for change from others and/or our institutions, but it is becoming rarer for us to acknowledge that maybe change should start with the person we see in the mirror every morning. I often speak to people about this necessity of mutual understanding, and it is always received with aggressive agreement. However, this agreement typically is in the form of “Yes, people should really try and understand where I am coming from more.” Are we actually doing the best we can to mutually understand one another?
Those who courageously made the ultimate sacrifice while fighting off external threats to our country didn’t do so for Americans to become threats to each other. They didn’t battle enemies of the United States until their last breath so we could simply make enemies of ourselves. The free will they fought to protect wasn’t meant for us to use as a tool of mutual destruction.
This Memorial Day let’s again honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice by doing the important traditional things like parades, moments of silence, gathering at monuments, and many others. But let’s also commit to giving these heroes the true honor that they deserve and the United States they sacrificed for: Let us fully dedicate ourselves to actively seeking mutual understanding among one another instead of mutual destruction.
Kenny Curran grew up in Bethlehem and now lives in Waterbury.