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The first national celebration of Memorial Day took place May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery. Originally known as Decoration Day, at the turn of the century the holiday was renamed Memorial Day. Families would bring flowers to place at the graves of their loved ones. Set aside as a day to honor service members who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, the nation would pause to remember. 

For many Americans, Memorial Day now is about celebrating the start of summer and the end of the school year. Advertisers and shops apply plenty of red, white and blue signage and wish us a happy Memorial Day while touting sales bonanzas and barbecues.

It can be jarring to be a Gold Star family member and see so much messaging that is disconnected from the meaning of the holiday. Just today, I was wished a Happy Memorial Day by a work colleague. I just let the comment slide past me and moved on. 

For me, the meaning of Memorial Day has changed over the years. Growing up, I attended parades and picnics for the holiday. But in 2007, my husband and I were seeking a more meaningful observance. My brother, Christopher, was deployed in Baghdad and the country was at war.

So we went to Arlington National Cemetery. It was sunny and hot — and the cemetery was pristine with its white gravestones and lush grass. First, we visited my father-in-law’s gravesite in section 66. A flag stood smartly at attention for the retired Marine Corps officer. We paused to reflect, and then we crossed the street to section 60. Here many of our fallen troops from Iraq and Afghanistan were laid to rest in fresh graves. The nation was already four years into the Iraq war and six years into the Afghanistan conflict.

A community of grief-stricken families had sprung up among the headstones in section 60, which was brimming with life. Dozens of people, many of them young, walked and talked softly. Babies cried and children played. Service members in uniform saluted or gave toasts. Their emotion and vulnerability seemed palpable, like a weight in the air. We tiptoed past at a distance. 

We would come back to section 60 that summer following a black hearse with a U.S. flag on the coffin inside containing my brother, U.S. Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger. He was killed in Baghdad on August 6, 2007, only three days after his 22nd birthday. 

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Friends of Spc. Enrique Roman-Martinez sit silently during his memorial ceremony at The All American Chapel on Fort Bragg, N.C., August 13, 2020. (Master Sgt. Alexander Burnett/U.S. Army)

He was a beautiful blond boy with a floppy grin and gangly long arms. The skies would weep with us as we buried my baby brother in a gray coffin while hot tears ran down my cheeks. This is what those other families felt on Memorial Day, I thought. I was so proud of my brother and all he gave his country; he gave his life. But the pain was soul-crushing.

Each year on Memorial Day, I return to section 60, where I reconnect with other Gold Star families. We hug and share our stories. The moms have the best snacks. We discuss how we survive the days carrying around giant holes in our hearts. 

Photographers — some of them legit media and some just hobbyists who like to photograph people crying — circle on Memorial Day. There is no privacy. The Secret Service sometimes appears and lines us up to screen us with hand-held metal detectors because the President is planning to stop by. My friend Nikki and I lined up with her boys, Connor and Cooper. Her husband is buried right behind my brother. 

She found out she was pregnant with their youngest son, Cooper, days after her husband was killed in Afghanistan. We spend Memorial Day together every year and her family shares memories of Army Captain Brian “Bubba” Bunting, who died in 2009.

The Memorial Day Flowers Foundation brings hundreds of flowers for us to place throughout section 60 and around the cemetery. It is beautiful and hearkens back to the original meaning of Decoration Day. For several years the gold star families formed a circle and held hands at 3 pm, the moment of National Remembrance. We would say our loved ones’ names. It’s simple. If only the rest of the country would pause to do this for a couple of minutes.

Bunting hopes people will “take a moment at some point in your weekend to reflect on the true meaning of Memorial Day. Since the birth of our country, Americans have been giving their lives to defend it. You and I have the privilege to live freely every day because of these brave and selfless American heroes. Honor them in the best way you see fit.”

For her, Memorial Day is a reminder of what they’ve lost. She told me it means:

-Missing the birth of Cooper 

-Missing Connor’s birthdays 

-Missing Cooper’s birthdays 

-Missing his own birthdays 

-Missing our anniversaries

-Missing every Christmas

-Missing the boys’ first day of school

-Missing every single other special life event that should have brought that beautiful smile to his face and joy to his heart.

…all for his country.

I reached out to other gold star families and asked them to share with me what Memorial Day means to them.  

Amy Dozier, the widow of Army Staff Sgt. Jonathan Dozier who died in Iraq in 2008 after their daughter, Emma, had just turned 1. “That year is still somewhat of a blur, yet I starkly remember praying that the month of May would suddenly disappear from the calendar. The thought of another day being dedicated to his sacrifice felt like a giant spotlight on the pain I felt,” Dozier said.

When Emma turned three and began asking more questions about her dad, Dozier reframed her grief and began spending each Memorial Day at the cemetery. “She was so intrigued by his ‘special rock’ in Arlington. Making memories here was a beautiful way to continue the bond between a little girl and the father she never got the chance to fully know,” said Dozier.

What Gold Star families wished everyone knew about Memorial Day
FILE PHOTO: Andrew Weston touches the gravestone of his uncle, U.S. Army Vietnam war veteran Thomas Shaun Monahan, at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery on Memorial Day, Monday, May 31, 2021 in Elwood, Ill. (Shafkat Anowar/AP Photo)

Now, Memorial Day is a day to celebrate Jon’s life for the Doziers. “It’s a celebration of the life Jon lived even as he followed his greatest passion to the very end. Jon always wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself and it took me years to understand the true meaning of his sacrifice.”

While growing up, Kristen Santos-Silva remembers spending Memorial Day marching in the high school band in community parades. Now she realizes how important these observances were. Her husband, Army Sergeant First Class Carlos Santos-Silva, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010.

For a decade, she spent Memorial Day in Washington, D.C. She spent time with her “beloved” at section 60 and went to Rolling Thunder. While there, she connected with veterans from other wars and honored alongside them the Prisoners of War who never came home. 

Today she’s a clinical social worker for a veterans’ clinic, which lets her honor Carlos every day. “The comfort on Memorial Day is being able to honor my late husband’s legacy. My son and I have his favorite meal of homemade chicken and biscuits as our tradition, and we share stories about our time together as a family,” said Santos-Silva.

For her, Memorial Day is about connection. “It is a day of remembrance, not for shopping sales or the start of the summer,” said Santos-Silva. “It’s about spending time with other military people that truly know the sacrifices and the hurt and pain.”

When she became a military spouse, Jenna Henderson’s idea of Memorial Day changed too. “I used to be like so many other Americans. I was rather oblivious to what Memorial Day really was about,” said Jenna Henderson, widow of Army Sergeant First Class Chris Henderson, who died in Afghanistan in 2007 at the age of 35, leaving behind Henderson and their daughter, Kayley.

“Once Chris was killed in action in Afghanistan, the day became even more surreal. I looked up the history of the day and realized there is a long tradition,” said Henderson.” Behind every man or woman that gave the ultimate sacrifice is a family remembering that loss on Memorial Day.” 

She suggests reaching out to Gold Star families and asking about their loved ones if they are willing to share. Employers could allow employees time off to honor their loved ones. Washing a gravestone to recognize someone who died for their country is a way to show respect. 

“There are local cemeteries all over the United States and around the world that have fallen soldiers buried within their grounds. Take the time to learn their names and their stories. Instead of saying Happy Memorial Day. Try saying Honoring Memorial Day,” suggested Henderson, who will spend the day hiking and fishing in the mountains with Kayley this year.

For Paula Davis, who lost her only child, Army Private First Class Justin Davis, in Afghanistan, Memorial Day is spent in section 60. She is participating with the Honor Movement Foundation’s Ruck To Remember. They hike carrying rucksacks for 60 miles to the cemetery. “Several Gold Star Moms and myself will join them in the Final Mile to go into section 60,” said Davis.

Davis said she will also visit with other Sold Star families. “They are a source of strength and encouragement for me.  I’m comforted visiting with other Gold Star families.” Later she will go to a cookout with family and friends, where she will ask everyone to participate in a toast in tribute to her son and other fallen service members.

“It’s a mixed emotional day for gold star families because we see so much celebration and not enough remembrance or understanding of what the day really means,” said Davis. “We want for people to remember the real reason for the holiday. I wish they would remember It’s a day of remembrance for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Please stop saying “Have A Happy Memorial Day.”

Her sentiments are echoed by Leesa Philippon, surviving mother of Marine Lance Corporal Lawrence Philippon, who was killed in action in Iraq on Mother’s Day in 2005. “I would like America to know the names and faces of those who have given their lives. When an individual takes the oath of service, they essentially become a son or daughter of America,” said Philippon, who served in the Army herself.

She notes that Memorial Day parades are important, but hopes that communities use them to honor the fallen. “I will never forget a parade on 9/11 one year in Maine where each person marching in the parade held the name of a life lost on that horrific day.”

She won’t be at Arlington National Cemetery this year to visit her son’s grave site. Instead, she and her husband will place flags at monuments and signs that bear their son’s name in the town where he grew up. 

“We will, no doubt, receive calls and messages from those who served with Larry and from his friends across the nation. We will teach our grandchildren about this day and tell them about their uncle Larry,” said Philippon.

She also does not want our veterans forgotten. “We cannot think of Memorial Day without thinking of Larry’s brothers in arms. Most are now veterans. They are family. We thank them for their faithful remembrance. They hold the last memories of Larry. His last laugh. His last smile. The sound of his last funny remark.” 

She encourages people to have a meaningful Memorial Day, to research a fallen military hero, and check in on a veteran who may be thinking of his or her own fallen comrades.

“Memorial Day can be an especially difficult day for service members who have lost friends and colleagues,” notes Kristen Fenty, widow of Army Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Fenty, who died in Afghanistan in 2006, less than a month after their first and only child, Lauren, was born.

She notes that not all families of the fallen view or acknowledge Memorial Day in the same way.  “If you know a family or service member who has grieved the loss of a family member, friend, or colleague, acknowledge the loss. Consider inviting them to join in your holiday tradition,” said Fenty.

“Grief does not make one a social pariah. Having the option to spend the day in quiet reflection, memorialization, or enjoying the freedoms our loved ones laid down their lives to protect are all different, but good ways to spend the day,” said Fenty.

Like Philippon, Fenty is also worried about our veterans, and she volunteers with an organization working to help Afghan allies come to safety in the U.S. 

“My husband died in Afghanistan fighting terrorism. I am concerned about some of those he served with. I know it is particularly difficult for them to see the allies who helped us fight terrorism left behind,” said Fenty.

“They struggle with processing the sacrifices of their friends, while watching the progress those sacrifices made erode, leaving their partners in danger. I want people to know that many service members are struggling, and some need to be heard. If anything, take a moment on Memorial Day to listen.” 

Perhaps that is all the families of the fallen want for America to do – to listen.

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Ami Neiberger is a Gold Star sister. Her brother, U.S. Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, was killed in Iraq in August 2007. She appears in the HBO documentary, Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery along with Paula Davis, Jenna Henderson, and Lisa Philippon.