Memorial Day is a holiday rooted in tradition. Every year, thousands of Oregonians participate in ceremonies, parades and other solemn events. But long before the first Memorial Day processions wound their way down city streets, long before dignitaries across the country took to podiums to honor service and sacrifice, the holiday started, informally, with a much simpler tradition: the laying of flowers upon the grave of a fallen service member.
It was in the wake of the American Civil War that communities began the practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers. This military family and community tradition was later formalized as a national day of honor in Decoration Day, and what we now call Memorial Day.
In 1866, no family or community was untouched by the Civil War. America’s bloodiest conflict resulted in over 1 million casualties and claimed over 620,000 lives. The impacts of the war were intensely and personally felt across the nation.
Today, over 320,000 veterans call Oregon home. We are a strong and diverse community, spanning four generations across five major wars. With every veteran counted, we must also recognize the sacrifice of their spouses and families, who served on the home front while their loved ones were in uniform.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that today’s battles are fought by less than 1 percent of our population. The weight of the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has been borne by the few. Most of our citizens today have not been directly impacted by war. The same cannot be said for our Gold Star families, who have lost a loved one in service to our nation.
We can never forget the true cost of war — a cost far beyond dollars and cents. A hundred years ago, in World War I, we lost over 115,000 dedicated service members — almost 1,000 of whom were from Oregon. Those who survived the battlefields in Europe did not come home to a robust system of veterans’ health care and benefits. But they banded together in service organizations and fought to advocate for the nationwide network of support we have today.
Across the ages, from the beaches of Normandy and the Pacific islands to the mountains and jungles in Asia, countless Americans have stood up to serve and have laid down their lives. At the most basic level, they fought to protect the one on their right and the one on their left, but ultimately their fight protects us all and preserves the values we hold dear.
This Memorial Day, as we kick off the start of summer and turn to enjoy Oregon’s incredible parks, beaches, rivers and mountains, we must encourage all citizens to pause and honor our fallen and Gold Star families. We stand on the shoulders of all those who came before us and will never forget our veterans’ service, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Thank you for your support of Oregon’s military, veterans and their families!
Cameron Smith served three tours in Iraq as a Marine and is the director of the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs.