Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day, Belgian Style

Now that the charcoal has cooled and the BBQ settled, anyone who hasn't already done so should take a minute to remember the reason for the three day weekend just concluded.  (Even if you don't read this until Tuesday, take a minute.)  Memorial Day is set aside to remember and honor those men and women who have given the highest sacrifice to protect and defend our freedom in this great country.  Without their willingness to fight and die for me and for you - from Lexington and Concord to Kabul and Baghdad - we would not have been able to fire up the grill in a free country this afternoon.  We certainly wouldn't be able to post or read uncensored newspapers, websites or even this blog without the heroic sacrifice of valorous soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines throughout the course of American history.  Thank you to each and every one of them.

But enough of my shallow words . . .  instead read the words of two men writing in today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  Joseph H. Bisher's letter to the editor began with a brief history of the holiday, then concluded:

"As America's older war veterans fast disappear from society's landscape, there are fewer and fewer standard-bearers left to carry the torch of remembrance.  Such traditions [as Memorial Day] will live on only if there is a vibrant movement to which the torch can be passed.  Now, more than in recent years, the enduring relevance of Memorial Day should be evident.  With two wars under way, the public has no excuse not to remember.  This much is owed to the more than 4,500 Americans who have died thus far in Afghanistan and Iraq."

It is important that we who owe so much accept the torch of remembrance.  Indeed, we should value and honor American heroes as much as the citizens of Belgium honor American heroes.

Sam Fox is a St. Louisan who now serves as U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium.  Fox's op-ed today carried home the point that the friendship between the United States and Belgium is solid and unbreakable.  In fact, the Belgian people are so thankful for the blood shed by Americans to protect their freedom that there "Memorial Day is actually a misnomer, because the Belgians devote two full days to their observation of the American holiday."  This is done to allow American dignitaries to participate in ceremonies at each of the three American military cemeteries in Belgium.  Fox continues:

"At each of these ceremonies, Belgian veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, line the long entrances on both sides.  Standing erect in whatever remnants of their uniforms they still own, they hold the flags of their regiments and battalions and shake hands with representatives of the U.S. armed forces, as well as with the American ambassador and members of their own government.  Thousands of other Belgians - men, women and children - join the veterans in paying their respects to the representatives of America and her war dead.

"In a remarkable tradition, the Belgians also visit the graves of individual fallen Americans whom they have 'adopted.'  For years, thousands of Belgians have been corresponding with the families of those American soldiers.  They tend the individual graves and, often on Memorial Day weekend, serve as hosts to visiting family members of the fallen.  At last years ceremonies, I shook hands with more than 100 of these visiting Americans.

"There are wreath-laying ceremonies, speeches, color guards, military bands and 21-gun salutes.  There are Missing Man formations flown by F-16s in which one of four jets in a group points its nose up and disappears into the sky.

"But perhaps the most moving of all the ceremonies involves the children who live near Flanders Field, where so much dying took place during World War I.  In a longstanding tradition, third-graders volunteer to learn English and sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" while waving Belgian and American flags.  The children then plant the flags of both nations at every American grave.  It's difficult to imaging a sight more simultaneously wrenching and heartening.

"A tiny country of about 10.5 million people crammed into a space about one-sixth the size of Missouri, Belgium suffered horribly during both world wars.  Those experiences have left an indelible mark - and an indelible appreciation for the United States."

As Americans we should have such and indelible appreciation for our own country and for the men and women who fought and died to establish and preserve it.  May we celebrate Memorial Day next year . . . Belgian style. 

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