Renee Nickell: On Memorial Day remember the debt of gratitude we owe to the fallen, including my brother

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On the fateful day when my brother, United States Marine Corp Maj. Samuel Griffith, was killed in combat, he had stepped in on the frontlines to remove his fellow Marine from heavy fire. In the process of making that sacrifice for his friend Sgt. Jason Hartzell, my brother Sam lost his life to save that of another man.

Not a single day passes that I don’t think of my brother, but Memorial Day stands out as an allotted time of respite when I can quietly and respectfully honor him among all the others who have fallen as a result of their sacrifice to our nation.

But every year when this day comes around, more and more people gear up to celebrate with BBQs, full bellies and family gatherings, seeing the three-day weekend as the celebration of summer more than the recognition of the fallen.


Somewhere in the vault of lost history, we’ve forgotten that this is a day originally set aside in the mid-1800s as Decoration Day. On the first Decoration Day, Gen. James Garfield spoke at the Arlington National Cemetery where 5,000 participants gathered to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers.

Many families continue to travel to the Arlington National Cemetery each year for Memorial Day weekend to decorate the graves just as they did on the original Decoration Day. These families understand that Memorial Day is not just a holiday, but a solemn time of remembrance. In fact, the holiday was intentionally made to be a three-day weekend so that families would have sufficient travel time to go visit the graves of their loved ones who died making the greatest sacrifice.

Regardless of politics or policies, I think everyone can agree that we owe a debt of gratitude to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

For the families of the fallen, to those service members who did everything they could to save their friend in battle, Memorial Day is much more than a backyard BBQ.

This year as I prepare for another Memorial Day of honoring my brother, I decided to talk to some of his fellow Marines to learn what the holiday means to them as active servicemen.

Samuel Mark Griffith's Casket

Samuel Mark Griffith's Casket

“I always say ‘thank you’ when somebody thanks for me for my service, but I also remind them that is not a day for me,” said Marine Maj. Christopher O’Rourke of the 4th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLC). “Memorial Day is reserved for those who have gone before and to reflect upon what has been sacrificed for us.”

As a military wife, I am incredibly thankful for our current service members, but as Christopher said to me, Memorial Day is not necessarily the time to thank veterans for their service. We have Armed Forces Day, Veteran’s Day and every other day of the year to thank them.

Another of Sam’s friends, Staff Sgt. Teddy Pernal of the 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company, told me, “When people thank me for my service, specifically on Memorial Day, I think of the friends I have lost to the job, including Sam Griffith. So I always thank the veterans who served in wars before mine for their service with the mindset of expressing my gratitude for their entire generation and the sacrifices they made for my mine. So if somebody thanks me on Memorial Day, I make sure to thank them for their gratitude and to carry that same courtesy out by going to pay my respects to my fallen friends by visiting the grave sites in tribute.”

Speaking to Sam’s friends reminds me of him even more as this Memorial Day is fast approaching, and when I do, I think about how much my brother loved to celebrate life. I know that he would not have wanted us to sit around and cry all day as we remember him. But as enthusiastic as he was about having a good time, Sam also knew when to be serious and to show honor. I think it’s possible to embody both of those as we remember: commemoration and respect.


“Before the Marine Corps, Memorial Day was all about BBQ’s and American flags,” said Staff Sgt. Ralph Perez, 4th ANGLC. “But after coming back from Afghanistan without Sam, the first few Memorial Days were really tough. It’s still hard, but I realize that Sam and all our brothers who didn’t make it back would want us to live our lives to fullest, to find meaning and to enjoy our days, making them proud of who we’ve become.”

When Memorial Day arrives, I urge you to attend a parade, visit a national cemetery or enjoy the day with your family. Regardless of politics or policies, I think everyone can agree that we owe a debt of gratitude to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Thank a veteran if you choose, but ultimately, remember the sacrifice.