Myth-Busting Memorial Day: The True Origin and Reasons for Honoring America’s Heroes

by Sokolove Law

Today we celebrate Memorial Day. People all over the nation come together this long weekend to celebrate the unofficial start of summer with the usual cookouts, Memorial Day sales, vacation planning, and, yes, traffic.

Meanwhile, thousands of veterans and military families gather at parades, cemeteries, and monuments to remember people who gave their lives to make Memorial Day possible.

It’s sometimes easy to forget, but important to remember why we enjoy the American freedoms we hold so dear. To reflect on and honor the heroic achievements of the armed forces and servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice? It’s the least we can do. Still, Memorial Day’s origin and motive still cause some confusion.

Memorial Day’s Little-Known Origins

Most people believe Memorial Day started in Waterloo, New York, which claims to have first celebrated the occasion on May 5, 1866. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation to recognize this origin a century later.

In fact, argues Richard Gardiner, professor of social science education at Columbus State University, this claim is “absolutely myth.” The May 1866 ceremony never happened. Gardiner believes Waterloo officials learned of it in a mistaken 1883 Seneca County news article, which was later corrected to state “the first service was held here in 1868.”

Further evidence shows that the idea for Memorial Day originated elsewhere, too. The day was actually inspired by a tradition that began in the South – where most of the war dead were buried – of laying flowers on graves. Mary Ann Williams, a military widow in Columbus, Georgia, was the one who urged Southerners to make the tradition annual.

“We cannot raise monumental shafts, and inscribe thereon their many deeds of heroism,” she wrote in a March 1866 letter, “but we can keep alive the memory of the debt we owe them by dedicating at least one day in each year to embellishing their humble graves with flowers.”

Two years later, General John A. Logan proclaimed “Decoration Day,” Memorial Day’s predecessor. He chose May 30, the best time to pick the “choicest flowers of springtime,” to commemorate the 620,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War. Fast forward to 1889, and Congress made it the national holiday we know now – to honor Americans killed in all wars.

But here’s another misconception: that Memorial Day flowers are only meant to honor those who died on the battlefield. To many Americans, today honors the thousands of servicemen who came home, only to die much later – and from an enemy they never suspected.

Veterans and the Hidden Enemy

In World War II, the U.S. Navy spent $590 Million on expanding and modernizing its fleet. And the best material to build new, stronger ships, builders thought, was asbestos.

The deadly mineral was used in good faith, at first. Its low cost, plus its resistance to fire, heat, and degradation, ensured ships withstood the elements of war. Its dangers, however, were hidden from the public by asbestos companies. By the time asbestos was declared a carcinogen, it was too late to protect the many thousands of veterans who were exposed to the substance.

Today, these veterans receive a third of the 3,200 annual diagnoses of mesothelioma, a rare, fatal asbestos-caused disease with no cure. Because of mesothelioma’s long latency period, mortality rates only just reached their peak.

As if this wasn’t enough for veterans to deal with, the U.S. government has done little to thank them for their service. The FACT Act and similar bills, lobbied by the same companies that hid asbestos risks, have limited the compensation veterans can receive for asbestos injuries. And because mesothelioma is so rare, research doesn’t get the federal support it urgently needs to develop better treatment.

Clearly, veterans deserve more.

Yes, Memorial Day is supposed to commemorate the deceased, rather than all veterans. We have Veterans’ Day for that. But what’s 1 more day to honor 20 million surviving veterans, raise awareness of the tragic link between veterans and asbestos, and advocate for the treatment they deserve?

Mary Ann Williams’s words are as pertinent now as ever. But another way to keep alive the memory of the debt we owe? By keeping alive our brave, underserved survivors.

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