It is not “Have a Happy Memorial Day” but a day to Give Honor to the Fallen Soldiers.
In the United States, only one percent of World War II Veterans are still living. In 2022, there were 167,284 WWII veterans reported by the US Department of Veterans Affairs and they are over ninety years old and “dying quickly.” (https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/wwii-veteran-statistics). I know for certain you can drop the number by one veteran, because my father just passed. He was a WWII veteran from the Army Air Forces. The Army Air Forces operated from 1941 to 1947 and bridged the Army into the development of the Air Force in 1947, the year he was discharged.
Memorial Day brings me back to a time… a culture that I grew up in the 1960s. I came from a family of immigrants; I was second generation, and my parents were the first generation to move from the Italian urban neighborhood to the suburbs. One of my grandfathers did not enter the country legally and via a forerunner to the Dream Act, he served in WWI and was granted his U.S. citizenship. He proceeded to run a very successful business in Paterson, New Jersey. My other grandparents came through Ellis Island, worked in the Paterson silk mills, and before the Great Depression managed to completely pay off their mortgage and build a solid life for their children.
My father served in WWII and was able to use the GI Bill (the forerunner to Affirmative Action for the offspring of immigrants) to attend college. Prior to the GI Bill, higher education was out of reach for immigrants and their children and served to widen the racial wealth gap because of the limited number of colleges that accepted black students. The GI Bill also afforded white veterans the opportunity to move to the suburbs but withheld the same advantage from black veterans, who were often denied mortgages and kept from buying homes in the new suburban neighborhoods.
As a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University, my father was employed by the defense company Singer Kearfott. He moved us to a suburb outside of Paterson, New Jersey. My sister and I are baby boomers who socially navigated this new world. We went between the urban Italian immigrant neighborhood in Paterson and the new shiny suburb.
Every Memorial Day, my father brought me to the Memorial Day Parade, and everyone held small American flags to wave at the honored WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam veterans as they passed. On the floats there were flowered wreaths honoring the veterans who did not make it home.
On some level the veterans, like my father, knew that the new lives their families were drinking in and enjoying were built on the backs of the veterans whose homecomings were different; those with a broad spectrum of trauma, with disabilities, or those did not come home to their loved ones. Captain Michael Kilroy (1941-1966) was the first Vietnam veteran killed from my hometown of Wayne, New Jersey. A recreational lake was renamed for him and Packanack Lake, where he grew up, placed a memorial plaque in his honor. The town’s people came together and founded a local chapter of American War Mothers and raised money for Vietnamese infants.
My father graduated high school early to leave for WWII. My sister was born in 1950 and I was born in 1961. My sister’s peers were either drafted into Vietnam or protested Vietnam. My peers were strangers to our veteran parents and protesters of the 1960’s. A new culture developed and evolved. The sacrifices of the veterans brought us to college prep high schools with dancing, swimming, and tennis lessons peppered into the mix. We felt entitled to new cars at seventeen and annual vacations…we were a new culture. We had somehow morphed into the greed generation and the yuppies. We all need to reflect on Memorial Day and give gratitude to the veterans who did not make it home, to the families who suffered losses. Remember, it is not “Have a Happy Memorial Day” but a day to give honor to the fallen soldiers.