The official Memorial Day holiday will be observed Monday throughout the area but the spirit of Memorial Day has been splendidly celebrated during the month of May as part of the ever-expanding Military Appreciation Days and other events.
The holiday originally known as Decoration Day dates to the post Civil War era. Gen. John Alexander Logan of Illinois, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, ordered the commemoration of Civil War dead in 1868 and on May 30 flowers were placed in Arlington National Cemetery on graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers.
Its commemoration has devolved across the nation and, while it has become the gateway to summer, it is vital that the real reason for the season be honored, as it has become in this area with deep roots in America’s military.
For example, earlier in the month, an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people visited the traveling replica of the Vietnam Memorial. This year, the “Wall That Heals” was erected in The Market Commons on the grounds of the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.
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For many Americans, “the wall” has helped heal the deep emotional wound of the Vietnam War. On the wall are 58,300 names of those killed in Vietnam, starting in 1959 through 1975. From the wall’s center, names on the black stone stretch to the right, as the panels of the wall decrease in height. The names continue on the left end of the wall on ascending panels. So the center has names from the first and final years of the war. Names continue to be added as remains of those Missing in Action are identified.
For whatever reasons, some Vietnam veterans decline to visit the traveling wall – or the one in Washington. Perhaps they do not care to be reminded of the war – widely viewed as an unwarranted loss of young American lives – or the terrible reception veterans received when they returned home. That reception, fueled by protests across the nation, particularly on college campuses, remains a low point in U.S. public behavior.
Kris Tourtellotte of the Veterans Welcome Home and Resource Center in Little River did three tours in Vietnam during eight years in the Army. He recalls his first visit to the memorial in Washington. “The first time, it did nothing for me. I walked the length and said, “ ‘Let’s go back to the campground.’ ”
Later, after he was involved in helping veterans, he was involved in bringing the traveling wall to Rochester, N.Y., and he saw it in an entirely different light.
However individuals may feel about Vietnam, or even the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans widely respect our military veterans – women and men, in combat or out of harm’s way, in peace and in war. It’s inspiring to watch a youngster tell an old guy wearing a veteran’s hat: “Thank you for serving our country.”
“I was a Vietnam vet when it wasn’t cool,” says Tourtellote. “Now everyone wants to be a Vietnam veteran. The biggest thing is the reception – now the whole thing is turned around. America has turned around.”
That’s evidenced by the growing response to Military Appreciation Days, created by the city of Myrtle Beach as an alternative to two motorcycle rallies that many residents felt were out of control. Both motorcycle events continue, albeit not so much in Myrtle Beach as in years past.
At the same time, Military Appreciation Days and numerous related events have grown into a marvelous, patriotic celebration that surely would make Gen. John Logan proud.