Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day, so named for the decorating of soldier’s graves after by women’s groups and others after the Civil War.  It is believed to have been an event that occurred spontaneously in dozens of places across the United States as we struggled to heal in the aftermath of that violent and prolonged conflict.

As the wife of a soldier about to deploy to Iraq, something about the idea of those women decorating the graves of soldiers after the Civil War simultaneously hurts and comforts me.  It hurts because I know most of those women were widows.  Yet it also comforts me to know that those women found solace in each other and in honoring their soldiers: in decorating those graves, they were acting to make a nation remember and recognize both their soldiers’ sacrifice and their own sacrifice.

It was also an act of social activism.  Those decorated graves said that no one life was to be forgotten, no one life was to be lost in vain.  It was an act that said not only was a life lost, but their were lives left behind that were impacted by the loss of that life.

While the purpose of Memorial Day is to remember the men and women who gave their lives while serving our country, I propose it is even greater:  it is a day to recognize not simply that the servicemember will have no more days ahead of him (or her) by virtue of their death, but that the days preceding his or her death were defined by hardship and courage.  Thus, the sacrifice is more than just the death, it is everything leading up to it; all that was left undone (or was done without him or her) and all whom were left behind.

As we enter our seventh year at war, please consider who and what we are really talking about when we say “dying in service of our country:”

We are talking about men and women who (post-Civil War era) die on foreign soil, thousands of miles away from parents, spouses, and children.  Men and women who die not having seen their child being born or their parent pass away.  Men and women who die not having seen their child’s first steps or high school graduation.  Men and women who die after spending their last holidays in jungles or deserts, or on mountains or ships, amid their “family” by circumstance but not by choice.

We are talking about men and women whose final words of love will never actually be heard by those they love.  Men and women who were called baby killers in the 1970s and illiterate in 2008.  Men and women whose voluntary service today prevent other men and women from being drafted and yet they are told they don’t deserve a draft-era GI Bill because they volunteered for this. These are the men and women we are remembering on Memorial Day.

Should my husband die in Iraq, I pray that he is remembered for his sacrifice.  A sacrifice that, in my mind, begins the day he leaves our arms but for the rest of the world will be memorialized on the day he dies, thousands of miles away from us, having missed our youngest son’s first day in Kindergarten, having possibly spent Christmas and our anniversary in the desert, and having called out for a mother who won’t hear him (or maybe, just maybe, me), when he passes from this world to the next.

For my part, I know that I will join the long line of widows before me in decorating his grave to remind this country that he left behind many who loved him, many who do remember him even if the world doesn’t, and that the sacrifice for this nation was not his alone.

Carissa Picard is a licensed attorney, founder and President of a non-profit, non-partisan veterans and military advocacy organization, Military Spouses for Change, and the spouse of an active duty Army pilot soon to deploy to Iraq.  She is also a writer for whose blogs can be found at the 2008 Election Center and op-eds can be found at the Passdown.

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