There’s an African Proverb that says: “As long as you speak my name I shall live forever.”
This Memorial Day in Pasadena we will speak the names of the 31 sons of Pasadena who were killed or remain missing from the Vietnam War. After each name, their age and branch of service will be read, a bell will be tolled. They gave the last full measure of devotion.
It’s been almost 50 years since the Vietnam War ended, and yet these 31 have never grown old and remain frozen in time. They never got married or had children. Instead, over the passing decades, their friends and loved ones that they left behind have slowly joined them in eternity.
Over the past 50 years, and the ending of the draft and inclusion of women into combat roles. a small segment of society still bears the burden of military service. The war in Vietnam was fought by young men for whom military service was compulsory. Many followed in the footsteps of their fathers who served in World War II. But this war proved much more divisive, and they returned home to a country bitterly divided over it.
By the attack on Sept. 11, 2001, our military has transformed itself into an all-volunteer force supplemented by the National Guard. These service members, including many women, have been driven by economic necessities and opportunity, patriotism after 9/11 and a tradition of military service in families.
What has remained constant over these past 50 years is that this small segment of society continues to bear the burden of military service. For these fellow citizens, their families, and friends, honoring those lost in service to our country on Memorial Day remains a time-honored tradition.
34 years ago, as a rookie City Councilmember, I joined with a group of other veterans in restoring the memory of those who had also served our country in Vietnam but didn’t return to the city they once called home. Our mission needed no explanation. The promise of Nemo Resideo, the phrase in Latin that means no one gets left behind, had been instilled in us from our earliest days of military training: It’s a sacred part of our creed as members of the Armed Forces of the United States: I will never leave a fallen comrade. For us the solemn remembrance of the fallen on Memorial Day is the fulfillment of the oath of enlistment we took upon entering active duty, an oath that has no expiration date.
But for many Americans, Memorial Day has become just another three-day weekend that marks the start of the summer season. The true meaning and purpose of Memorial Day remains lost to those who never served our country or had a family member who did. It didn’t always be this way.
It was a different America when I was a kid growing up. On Memorial Day every house on our street displayed the American Flag. Sure, there were backyard barbeques, hot dogs, and lemonade. But we always paused to remember those who had died in service to our country.
How many houses in Pasadena will display the American flag on Memorial Day?
In his Inaugural Address President Kennedy had said “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In placing service over self all military veterans have answered President Kennedy’s question and in so doing are an example for all of us and a reminder of our obligations as Americans to our country. The measure of our worth is not fame or fortune but rather what we give back to our nation and our community.
That’s why on Memorial Day remembering those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country is so important. And we also remember their families and friends who continue to grieve and for whom Memorial Day has a special significance.
Here in Pasadena, there will be no official commemoration. Instead, the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America will hold a memorial service in Memorial Park starting at 10:30 am. It will include bagpipers playing Amazing Grace and the Blair High School Junior ROTC Honor Guard will be presenting the colors.
Some may think that Memorial Day is only about remembering the fallen from past wars. Yes, those sacrifices made in all wars must be remembered, but Memorial Day is also for honoring those who have recently died, too. Members of the Armed Forces don’t only die in war. Yes, being killed in action is the ultimate sacrifice, but countless others die during training exercises, failures of their equipment or by suicide. According to the Department of Defense, since 9/11 more than 16,000 service members have died in non-combat circumstances, more than double the 7,000 who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Because Memorial Day is a National Holiday, many think it’s appropriate to say, “Happy Memorial Day.” It’s not. It’s also not appropriate to say, “Thank you for your service.”
This isn’t Veteran’s Day when we pause as a nation to recognize the sacrifice of those who have served our country in uniform. Memorial Day is a National Day of Remembrance in which we simply say, “We remember.” Better yet, come to Memorial Park at 10:30 and join us in remembering the 31 sons of Pasadena who were killed or remain missing from the Vietnam War.
William Paparian is an attorney, former Mayor of Pasadena, and United States Marine Corps Veteran