While most people consider Memorial Day summer’s official start, most years I’ve donned my Army uniform and taken part in the Memorial Day Ceremonies at the military cemetery near our Beverly Hills office where 80,000 war dead are interred.
Why? I was a Major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1967 to 1975, serving two years on active duty and six in reserve. I was never called on to serve overseas, but served as Chief, Head & Neck Surgery at the U.S. Dewitt Army Hospital at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and was a consultant and residency program instructor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Most people don’t realize it, but Memorial Day has been in effect since the end of the American Civil War; the holiday was started as a way to commemorate the 620,000 combined Union and Southern war dead.
It started in 1864 with groups of women – many of them widows – decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers after the battle of Gettysburg.
The next year, women in Columbus, Mississippi, decorated the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers with flowers. Other states adopted the observance, call it “Decoration Day.”
I learned some things about Army doctors that most civilian surgeons never have to face. For Army surgeons in a combat zone – like in Afghanistan today – dealing with wounded soldiers can be painful for the surgeon, too. A 20-something soldier with a mangled leg begs and pleads for the surgeon to save his leg. But the surgeon knows the soldier can go home with a prosthesis instead of in a coffin.
Sorting the war wounded is terribly painful, too. Some terribly wounded men are put into a category known as “expectant” – shorthand for “expected to die.”
Military medicine offers some aspects that are superior to civilian medicine, but the dedicated surgeons, nurses and corpsmen are not able to save all lives or restore all functions.
No, Memorial Day is not the official start of summer, but a solemn holiday observance. Thoughtful and appreciative Americans see the day as it was intended back in 1865: as a way to honor its devoted soldiers, past and present, for selfless service to the nation.
As for me, I was proud to serve our country performing my life’s work. I learned a tremendous lot while teaching others, too. Sometimes, I wish I could do it all over again.