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Commemorated annually on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day is a federal holiday set aside to honor the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces who have sacrificed their lives in the line of duty. This includes everyone who has served in the US Army, Navy, Marine Corps, National Guard, Air Force, and the Coast Guard.

Though widely observed in towns and cities since the early 1800s, it was not until May 30, 1868, when General John A. Logan declared a day of remembrance for fallen heroes, that it became a national event. The Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic hoped Decoration Day would help improve the strained relations between the Northern and Southern States following the conclusion of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Logan marked the occasion by placing American flags and flowers on the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

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While the Northern States embraced Decoration Day, residents of the South continued to honor their fallen soldiers on different days. Only after the holiday was extended to recognize service men and women killed in World War I did they acknowledge Decoration Day. Many Southern States, however, still celebrate a second holiday — Confederate Heroes Day — in honor of their American Civil War heroes.

In 1968, the US Congress declared what was now known as Memorial Day a federal holiday and moved the date to the last Monday of May. While this allows Americans to enjoy a three-day weekend, the day’s significance has been somewhat diminished. Most people consider it as the unofficial start of summer and spend the day firming vacation plans, attending barbecues, or lazing around by the pool. To remind residents of the holiday’s solemn purpose, US President Bill Clinton passed “The National Moment of Remembrance Act” in December 2000. The law urges Americans to observe a minute of silence at 3:00 pm (local time) to honor the heroes who have sacrificed their lives for the safety and freedom of our country.

Poppy Wall at National Mall (Photo Credit: PRNewsfoto/ USAA)

This year, Americans will get another reminder of the solemn reason behind the holiday in the form of a temporary Memorial Day display at Washington D.C.’s National Mall. Measuring 133 feet long and 8 1/2 feet tall, it is filled with 645,000 synthetic red poppy flowers, one to honor every American service member who has died in combat since World War I. Visitors to the “Poppy Memorial,” open from May 25 to May 27, will also be able to dedicate digital poppies using the on-site kiosks, while those unable to see it in person can pay their respects online. As retired US Navy Vice Admiral John M. Bird says, “To not forget. To recall and remember those who have sacrificed. That is the significance and the purpose of Memorial Day.” So, on May 28, set aside the burgers and root beer floats and take a few minutes to reflect on all the brave men and women who have sacrificed their lives for our freedom.

Happy Memorial Day!