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Remember the sacrifices Take time to honor the men and women who have made our freedoms possible

Chances are, if you spent any time planning for this weekend, it was to make a tee time, get the pool ready for the summer or buy provisions for a cookout of grilled hamburgers and hot dogs.

We've long treated Memorial Day as the unofficial kickoff to summer — a last-Monday-in-May, guaranteed three-day weekend — while forgetting why we observe the holiday.

But it's not too late, even if you just take a moment today to recognize the sacrifices made by those who died at far too early an age in the service of their country.

For more than two centuries, families from this area have sent off to war teenagers and young adults, some not old enough to legally drink, only to see too many of them return in a coffin.

This year marks the bicentennial of the start of the War of 1812, which saw bitter fighting here, including the burning of Buffalo and other Niagara Frontier villages.

Some 300 soldiers in that war died while camped in what is now Delaware Park. They are buried there in a mass grave.

So it is fitting that a memorial to the "Tomb of the Unknowns" will be unveiled today, near the Buffalo Zoo, by Steve Cichon, a local radio reporter and historian who led the effort to better recognize the 300.

For the past year, Buffalo Niagara has joined the rest of the nation in marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, our nation's bloodiest war.

It's only fitting that our attention turns back to Fort Sumter, Antietam, Gettysburg and Appomattox, because Memorial Day traces its origins to Decoration Day, a holiday established in 1868 to honor the dead from that war.

But we don't have to look to the history books, or stoop to peer at the fading words on a long-dead soldier's crumbling tombstone to recognize the sacrifices made in the name of the United States of America.

This is the first Memorial Day observed since the withdrawal, in December, of the last U.S. combat troops from Iraq, where 4,486 American servicemen and women died since that war began in 2003.

We continue to wage war in Afghanistan, where Americans have served since October 2001, making it by far the lengthiest war in U.S. history.

The American death count for that conflict is nearing 2,000, and coalition forces will continue to press the fight against the Taliban there through the end of 2014, President Obama and his NATO allies said last week.

We will leave Afghanistan as we left Iraq, without declaring victory, mourning the dead and, while hopeful, worrying what will happen after we've departed.

Unlike in previous conflicts, the general public hasn't been asked to make much of a sacrifice during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the burden has fallen disproportionately on the servicemen and women and their families.

But we can take this one day to make a gesture to honor those who paid for our freedom with their lives. Display the flag, attend a Memorial Day ceremony, tend the grave of a fallen veteran or take your children to a parade — but spend a few minutes explaining why we're having a parade today.