More than a century ago, the tradition on Memorial Day was to place flowers on the graves of the war dead. Over the years, that tradition has been replaced by putting hamburgers on the grill and enjoying a three-day weekend with friends and family. But the traditions and meaning of the holiday are being revived thanks to the efforts of two groups of veterans.
“For many in my generation, Memorial Day was the three-day weekend that kicks off the summer. There is nothing wrong with barbequing or going to the beach. But people in my generation seem to have forgotten why we have the holiday in the first place, which is to pay due respect to those who served and died. We want to change that,” says Stephen Holley, a former Navy SEAL and co-founder of the non-profit Carry the Load.
Having both experienced the recent loss of friends in combat, Holley and fellow Navy SEAL Clint Bruce decided six years ago to set off on a new mission – to actively honor those who never made it home and to care for veterans and their families.
The first march, held on Memorial Day 2011 in Dallas, was primarily attended by veterans and their family members, but Holley says the group has experienced substantial growth since then.
This year, Carry the Load will hold 35 rallies across the country with as many as 50,000 expected to participate. The celebration of Memorial Day actually began on April 28 with two relay marches on the East Coast and the West Coast.
The West Coast relay started its 4,100-mile trip from Seattle, while the other sets out on a 2,100-mile journey from West Point Cemetery in New York. Both end on Memorial Day in Dallas.
The mission of Carry the Load today includes providing direct service and assistance to veterans, firefighters, police and other first responders. Since 2011, they have raised $13.7 million with 93 percent of those funds going to programs that provide care, raise awareness and educate the next generation about the meaning of Memorial Day. http://www.carrytheload.org/site/DocServer/2016_ImpactReport_Final.pdf?docID=881
The first Memorial Day observance took place on May 30, 1868, when former Union Gen. and then-Ohio Congressman James Garfield honored veterans of the Civil War in a speech at Arlington National Cemetery.
Then known as Decoration Day, the participants proceeded to place flowers on the graves – a tradition, which lasted for many years. More than a century later, Congress passed legislation in 1971 to set aside the last Monday of May as a national day to remember the fallen.
In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance resolution, which called on Americans to pause at 3 p.m. to reflect on its meaning.
Three years after Carry the Load was founded, another band of Navy SEALS channeled their own frustration and sense of loss into reclaiming the 150-year old holiday.
"We want to bring back the real meaning of Memorial Day, which is not about mattress sales, barbeques and just another three-day weekend like Labor Day. Somewhere we lost sight of who we are to be honoring and remembering,” Josh Jespersen, a former Navy SEAL and co-founder of Mission Memorial Day, says.
Co-founder Margaux Mange says she and her fellow veterans were inspired after taking part in the taping of a Memorial Day episode of the talk show The View. At the end of their taping, a group of bathing-suit-clad models were ushered in to the studio for a segment featuring spring fashions show.
“It just struck me that Memorial Day should not be about fashion shows or the latest bathing suits. It is intended to be a solemn day to remember those who never came home,” she tells Fox News.
While the Carry the Load and Mission Memorial Day share a purpose, they take different approaches.
Jespersen tells Fox News that after spending one too many Memorial Days getting drunk and climbing atop the bar, it was time to find a better outlet.
“We wanted to do something that crushed us physically and mentally, so we decided that climbing mountains and carrying the American flag with the manes of those who died in war written on it was a fitting tribute,” he says.
The first expedition took them to Alaska's Denali National Park and facing a climb of 20,237 feet to the summit of Mt. McKinley, the tallest peak in North America.
In 2016, they had ambassadors ascend five separate peaks in America on Memorial Day. This year, they plan to travel to the Philippines to reenact the Bataan Memorial Death March.
The group is carrying two American flags covered with names of military members who have been lost in war. One flag has nearly 80 names on it, while the other is covered in the names of every Navy SEAL killed since 9/11.
Jespersen admits the organization has not grown as much as he would like because their focus remains on the Memorial Day treks, rather than year-round events.
“What matters to us is that we have gained enormous support from the families who submit their names to be carried on the flag. It means so much to them that their loved ones are not forgotten, that they are not alone,” he says.