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Memorials might be virtual, but feelings are real

Memorial Day celebrations throughout the region, the state and the country will be different this year. While we all ease out of social-distancing stay-at-home orders, the star-spangled parades, ceremonies and speeches are not happening as they normally would this year.

But Monday should still serve as a reminder to all of the honorable sacrifices of those we lost in military service.

In today’s edition, we invite you to read a story about a man who wanted a pro football career but wound up as a professional soldier. After losing his legs in Iraq to an IED in 2007, he found inspiration to go on by honoring the memory of comrades. In another story, the rich 100-year history of the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery is celebrated.

And among so many others from Southern Maryland who gave the ultimate sacrifice, let’s also pause and honor the memory of the first Marylander killed in World War II, who was from St. Mary’s County. Albert Eugene Hayden, a Navy chief petty officer, was killed in the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, while serving aboard the USS Oklahoma. After nearly 75 years, his remains were recovered and he was laid to rest May 18, 2016, alongside his parents at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Morganza.

Leonardtown native Capt. Walter Francis Duke was also among the St. Mary’s men lost in World War II, over the skies of Burma. In 2012, his relatives were notified that his remains had likely been found in cleared jungle in today’s Myanmar. Since then, a new elementary school in Leonardtown has been named after him. Duke’s remains have not yet been returned to St. Mary’s County, though.

Those local World War II heroes deserve our acclaim as 2020 marks 75 years since the end of that global conflict.

Memorial Day started as Decoration Day, first proposed in 1868. The idea of Gen. John Logan, a founder of the Grand Army of the Republic Union Army veterans group, came in the midst of the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction and as the nation’s first presidential impeachment was moving toward a Senate vote. Those were challenging times indeed.

In his order, Logan called for decorating the graves of those who died “in defense of their country” during the Civil War. While not offering any “prescribed” form of observance or ceremony, the order suggests GAR “posts and comrades … arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances permit.”

With World War I, what began as day of remembrance for one war became a commemoration of Americans lost in all conflicts. Congress passed legislation codifying Memorial Day in 1968, with the first official celebration held under that law in 1971.

The Congressional Research Service maintains an annually updated report of “American War and Military Operations Casualties,” from 1775 to present. The numbers are staggering and stark reminders of why Memorial Day is so important. The total number of American servicemen and women killed in war, according to the report dated last September, is more than 1.01 million. And it should be noted, the 364,511 total deaths listed for the Civil War alone count only Union soldiers, not Confederate casualties.

The battlefield is not the only place American servicemen and women fall. We also lose them at home. We lose them to post-traumatic stress disorder. We lose them to old injuries. We lose them because of exposure to dangerous chemicals while serving. We lose them in training accidents.

Whether they made their sacrifice to our country in combat or here at home, we honor them. We honor their willingness to serve, to put all of us before themselves.

This year’s Memorial Day will look different for sure. But the importance of it — of taking time to reflect on those who sacrificed for our country — is not diminished.