11: Memorial Day Volunteers

11: Memorial Day Volunteers

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Memorial Day Volunteers

We come, not to mourn our dead soldiers, but to praise them.

~Francis A. Walker

My small town of Haddam, Connecticut has been commemorating Memorial Day with a parade and ceremony since the 1800s when the occasion was known as Decoration Day. Our event has always been organized by a team of veterans who, as they aged, passed the task on to the next generation of warriors. However, after the Vietnam War ended, the number of those serving in the military dramatically shrank, leaving us with fewer veterans to continue the tradition. With a diminished volunteer pool, one stalwart veteran took sole charge for a twenty-year period.

Eventually, by the mid-1990s, the observance had become stale and uninspired, primarily due to our speakers having difficulty appreciating the significance of the day. Attendance was suffering as well.

We always close our Memorial Day ceremony by somberly reading the names of our town’s war dead over a soft drumroll. As the years passed and memories faded, the names of the fallen were becoming a blur and in some cases meaningless. Our older veterans were worried that if the townspeople continued to lose sight of military sacrifice that our Memorial Day observance would evolve into something unrecognizable.

Something needed to be done.

To reverse the growing concern, specially selected volunteers were sought to join the parade committee to help ease the organizational burden. It was an honor for me to be asked to assist, so I volunteered to give the next Memorial Day address.

The focus of my planned speech would be to change the reading of the names of our war dead from something routine into something of significance — something that would make it clear that these were genuine heroes who once walked among us. My talk simply consisted of each fallen soldier’s branch of service, his rank, age, a personal trait and the circumstances of his death.

To gather the necessary information I solicited family members, distant relatives and old friends. Everyone I contacted shared so many fond stories of their loved ones that I began to feel as if I knew each soldier personally. As a result, it was a simple, gratifying task to put all those memories into a speech.

As an added bonus, relatives were so thrilled with the idea of a public remembrance that they felt compelled to give me old photos, newspaper clippings, letters, and in some cases, medals and other wartime memorabilia. The collected items were mounted in glass displays and unveiled at the close of the Memorial Day ceremony.

My speech was so well received, and the displays had such a historical and emotional impact, that our town officials asked that they be prominently placed in the town hall for all to see. Within a few weeks, citizens began asking where they could donate military uniforms, equipment, captured weapons, enemy flags and personal souvenirs from various wartime eras. Hundreds of items that had been gathering dust and taking up space in attics were offered because people did not have the heart to throw them away. It was obvious that our townspeople were still patriotic; they just needed to be reminded.

During the next few years, the collection grew so fast that parade committee members had boxes of wartime and home front memorabilia under their beds and stuffed in their closets. Our town officials were well aware of the artifacts we had amassed, so in 2001 we were granted use of a vacant firehouse and converted it into the Haddam Veterans’ Museum. In less than two years, the building was filled to capacity. We also added an outdoor Veterans’ Memorial Walk with large gray pavers engraved with the names of Haddam’s war dead and small red pavers to honor specific veterans in a more personal way.

The museum became an immediate focal point, especially on Memorial Day, when hundreds of parade attendees spend hours reviewing the displays. During the rest of the year we get requests from local schools and civic groups for museum tours.

Prior to the reorganization of our parade committee, we practically had to beg people to give the Memorial Day address. Now we have a waiting list. The size of our parade committee has quadrupled and there is never a shortage of dedicated volunteers, both civilians and veterans.

On the Saturday before Memorial Day we place more than 500 new American flags on veterans’ graves in ten cemeteries across town. In the past, this was an all-day undertaking. Now, the task is completed in less than three hours because our flagger ranks have tripled.

My speech may have been the catalyst that created our veterans’ museum and got our Memorial Day observance back on track, but it was the selfless volunteers who banded together that really made it happen. Americans, once reminded, are happy to dive in and show their patriotism.

~Arthur Wiknik, Jr.

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