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Why Memorial Day matters

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Posted: Friday, May 23, 2008 10:00 pm

The other day during my English as a second languageclass, I reviewed with my students our schedule for the remaining two weeks of school.

After I wrote on the board, "Monday, May 26th, Memorial Day, No Class," I wondered how many students knew the significance that holiday holds for them.

I was disappointed but not surprised when no one knew anything about Memorial Day.

Although my class consists of many recently sworn-in American citizens, some of whom had studied the Civil and World Wars, Memorial Day drew a blank.

All too few native-born Americans understand either. Many consider Memorial Day merely as a launching point for the summer season.

I explained to my students that Memorial Day - and all that it represents - is why they have come to America.

On Memorial Day, I told them, we honor our finest young men and women who died to preserve the liberties that make America such a wonderful country.

As an example, I talked to them about my generation's war - in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, - where more than 56,000 Americans died. I explained the struggle that the Southeast Asian war represented at home and abroad.

Americans were united in our desire to stop communism's spread in those distant countries. But as the war dragged on endlessly for more than 15 years, Americans lost their trust - never to be regained - in our political leaders.

America was torn between the hawks that wanted a more intensified war and the doves that wanted out of Vietnam.

As I explained to my class, a soldier's sacrifice wasn't necessarily limited to the battlefield. Many paid a heavy price that started the moment they came home and continued for years after the Vietnam War's conclusion.

Some Americans' anti-war feelings were so bitter that they spurned returning soldiers instead of embracing them, as they should have.

Edie Meeks, a war nurse and one of the 258,000 women volunteers in Vietnam, remembers being told by her fellow nurses, "be sure to take your uniform off as soon as you get stateside. Things aren't pretty for anyone in uniform."

Fearful that she might be an object of scorn, Meeks, immediately upon her return, took off her fatigues and threw them in the trash.

Meeks, now a board member of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation, greets fellow veterans with "Welcome home," words rarely spoken to veterans during the turbulent 1970s.

I shared with my students some of my personal Memorial Day recollections that include a trip years ago to Washington, D.C. where, as I always do, I visited the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, more commonly known as "The Wall."

Among the names of the dead etched on the black granite wall is North Carolina native Lt. Col. Annie Ruth Graham, chief nurse at Tuy Hoa. Graham suffered a stroke in 1968 on August 14, 1968, and died four days later after being evacuated to Japan. Only 52, Graham had previously served in World War II and Korea.

For those too young to remember Vietnam, I assure you it's still with us.

On the Wall's Web site, listed under "guest book" and posted only days ago, I found this: "I am looking for anyone who knew my dad in Vietnam. I would love to hear from you and know about my Dad's time there and what he was like. I was two years old when he died over there. Please someone respond back. I want Dad back."

Tens of thousands of soldiers during dozens of wars over countless decades made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the American ideals of freedom and justice. That's why the U.S. is and always will be the greatest country in the world.

Our lost soldiers' heroic deeds ensure that America will always be a beacon.

My hope, as this school year ends, is that the thousands of immigrant students I've had in my classes over the last 20 years will join Americans everywhere in acknowledging the debt we owe to our lost soldiers.

Joe Guzzardi teaches at the Lincoln Tech Academy. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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