Ira Joe Davis
Ladies and gentlemen, let me begin by thanking the leadership of the
American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States
for allowing me to participate in your Memorial Day ceremonies.
Memorial Day has a special significance to me, and I am truly honored
to be with you today.
When I accepted your invitation to speak, I was presented with a
dilemma. You see, I received several "canned" speeches to choose from
for today's message. They are prepared by professional speechwriters,
and all are superior speeches, although they normally include some
hidden agenda like the need for a stronger military, or the success
of our latest military intervention. However, I felt that these
topics miss the true meaning of Memorial Day, and so I chose not to
use any of them, and wrote my own speech instead. I ask your
forgiveness if my comments are not as polished as you may be
accustomed to, but they are more sincere.
Most of us are familiar with the adage, "Old soldiers never die,
they just fade away." That saying is grossly untrue on two counts,
and that is what I wish to comment upon for the next few minutes.
First of all, old soldiers do die, often in combat; and so do
young soldiers, and sailors, and Marines, and airmen. Service
members, young and old, men and women, from every branch of military
service, die defending our country and our way of life. They fight in
popular and unpopular wars, in countries all over the world. They
carry the American flag, and the ideals and values for which it
stands, to every corner of the world.
They don't go for glory, or honor, or fame. They go because their
duly elected officials, who represent the American people, including
you and me, ask them to place themselves in harm's way. They
sacrifice family, friends, and often their lives, to serve their
country. The New Testament tells us that there is no greater love
than to give your life for another. Our fallen comrades have
demonstrated that love, and that is what Memorial Day is all about.
The second misconception is that old soldiers just "fade away."
Our fallen comrades didn't fade away. In most cases, they were simply
forgotten. One reason for this is that the true meaning of Memorial
Day has been lost by the majority of the American people. To most
Americans, Memorial Day is simply one of the federal holidays that
bracket the summer season. Memorial Day for them marks the beginning
of summer, the opening of the community swimming pool, the start of a
family vacation, the first barbecue of the year, or a much-needed
three-day weekend. For the shopping malls and department stores,
Memorial Day is an excuse for one more spectacular sales event.
Others confuse Memorial Day for Veterans Day or Armed Forces Day,
and although it is highly appropriate to honor all our veterans,
living and dead, and to recognize their immeasurable contributions to
our country, that is not the purpose of today's ceremonies.
Memorial Day is an annual holiday to honor all armed services
personnel killed in wars in the defense of our country. It was
originally called Decoration Day, and is traditionally marked by
parades, memorial speeches, and the decoration of graves with flowers
and flags. It was first observed for the purpose of decorating the
graves of American Civil War dead. It was observed on May 30 until
1971, when most states adopted the federal schedule for holiday
observances. In recent times, we have also included fallen policemen
and firemen, and others who gave their lives in the performance of
their duties to our society.
The forerunner of Memorial Day was born on Nov. 19, 1863, when
President Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg, Penn., to help dedicate
a new national cemetery to the brave soldiers who died in the battle
that served as the turning point of the Civil War. With your
permission, I would like to read a portion of his now immortal
"We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to
dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those
who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is
altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
"But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate,
we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who
struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add
or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we
say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
"It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the
unfinished work which they who fought here have thus so nobly
advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task
remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased
devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of
devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have
died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of
freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the
people, shall not perish from the earth."
Ladies and gentlemen, it is also fitting and proper that we gather
here today to remember and honor those brave men and women who have
given their lives that we might live in a free and prosperous United
States of America. But in the same sense, it is impossible for us to
do anything, or say anything, that can add to the honor that they so
nobly earned. Rather, it is our solemn responsibility to remember
them, and to give grateful thanks that when their nation called, they
answered with their lives.
If President Lincoln were alive today, I believe he would be both
amazed and disappointed, because his Gettysburg Address is better
remembered than the fallen men to which he dedicated it. But there is
still a spark of hope, because you are here today. You made time in
your schedules to remember these brave men and women.
Gen. Robert E. Lee once said, "It is well that war is so terrible,
or we would become fond of it." The danger in not remembering the
sacrifices made by these men and women is that as a nation, we may
forget that the price of freedom is never cheap. Your presence here
today is a living example of what we as an American people should all
be doing on this Memorial Day.
We are all shaped by our experiences. My boyhood memories of
Memorial Day weekends go back to the times that my family would
travel back to our home church for a weekend of work and fellowship.
We would all sit in an unair-conditioned, one-room church, fanning
feverishly with cardboard fans on Popsicle sticks provided by the
local funeral home. We sang gospel songs, had picnics on the grounds,
and drank spring water from a tin cup. At one point in the weekend,
everyone moved to the church cemetery, and we would spend several
hours working on the graves of our families and friends. We hoed out
weeds, cut the grass, repaired fences, straightened headstones, and
planted fresh flowers on the graves.
The work was not a burden; instead, it united families and
communities with their past. It is easy to remember your ancestors
and their contributions when you spend some time with them.
Unfortunately, these practices have all but disappeared from today's
In closing, I would like to encourage you to take a few moments to
walk through the cemetery, and to visit the graves of our fallen
servicemen and women. I assure you, there is no greater sense of
gratitude than when you spend time personally reflecting on the
sacrifices that these fallen comrades made for you and me. I thank
you very much for this opportunity to say these few words today. May
God bless America.
* Editor's note: On the date of this speech, May 28, 1995, Ira Joe
Davis was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. His speech was
delivered at Robinson's Run Cemetery, McDonald, Penn.