Memorial Day is much more than the unofficial beginning of summer, much more than a three-day weekend. It honors the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving up their lives in the defense of their country. As a solemn observation, Memorial Day has a set of traditions that do justice to the honor of our fallen heroes. For a richer, deeper understanding of this important holiday, plan to participate in these activities:
 
1. Visit the cemetery. If you have family members who were veterans, bring flowers and/or flags to their graves. Some cemeteries have specific regulations about what kind of memorials are allowed; be sure to check ahead to avoid potential problems. 
 
Bring your children or grandchildren; have a talk with them beforehand about being respectful in a cemetery. Though this is a solemn task, it should also be a time to share good memories of your loved one who’s passed on. Let your children know why you’re proud of your late veteran. Memorial Day is a good time to pass on family stories about the historical struggles the family has participated in.

Even if you don’t have a loved one who was lost in a war, or who was a veteran, take the time to visit the cemetery. Find the resting place of a veteran whose grave needs flowers or a flag, and leave some for him or her. 
 
2. Visit your local memorial. Since the World Wars, there have been memorials to United States soldiers all over the world. Maybe a historical battle was fought in or near your town; if so, there is likely a marker observing the actual place where it occurred. Visit these places and learn about the history of the place. You can also leave flowers and flags at a memorial as you would on a veteran’s grave, honoring all the participants at once. Many cities and towns also have war memorials if their citizens were involved in the conflict, even if the actual conflict took place far from home. 
 
You can find an alphabetical list of memorials and casualties lists at www.usmemorialday.org/memorialsfull.htm. You can also call or look online for your local parks department for more information. 
 
3. Fly the U.S. flag at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day. This is specified by the U.S. Flag Code. After noon, it may be raised to full staff. 
 
4. Fly the POW/MIA flag. As of February 2010, there are 12 Americans currently listed as missing in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are another 2 Americans officially listed as missing from the 1991 Persian Gulf War, though the unofficial number may be considerably higher. The numbers from earlier conflicts are even more sobering: 1,720 Americans from the Vietnam War, 8,051 from the Korean War, 74,384 from the Second World War, with an additional 6,043 Americans buried at sea. 
 
Memorial Day is not only the ideal time for remembering those who are missing, but also for actions. Since many POW/MIAs may still be alive and in captivity, it’s important for the U.S. to do all it can to find them and bring them home, or at least to let their families know what became of them and return remains when necessary. Call or write your representatives to let them know this issue is important to you.
 
There is an organization, Operation Just Cause, that allows you to “adopt” an individual who is missing in action or captured so you can advocate for that person. Find more information at www.ojc.org/adopt/
 
5. Observe the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. Simply observe one minute of silence for the remembrance of those who died in the defense of the United States at 3 p.m. local time. Created by President Bill Clinton in 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance is designed, in President Clinton’s words, to encourage all Americans to “come together to recognize how fortunate we are to live in freedom” by using Memorial Day to specially remember those whose sacrifice makes freedom possible. 
 
6. Donate your time or money to veterans’ causes. This last observance may be the most important of all. One of the original purposes for the creation of Memorial Day after the Civil War was to give material support to the widows and orphans of the soldiers. Today there are all kinds of ways to help our military families and our disabled veterans. 
 
Organizations such as Gold Star Wives, TAPS (the Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors), and No Greater Love exist to help families and friends who have lost loved ones serving in the military. Groups such as the United Service Organizations (USO) provide many services for active military personnel and their families. The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the Marine Corps League, Paralyzed Veterans of America, The National Veterans Foundation, and similar organizations provide counseling and advocacy services and help homeless veterans. You can find them online or in your local phone book. 
 
About the Author: Erin E. Schmidt, the granddaughter of a Pearl Harbor survivor, has written for magazines including Circle, The Saturday Evening Post and the Almanac for Farmers and City Folk. Readers can keep up with her writing at http://erineschmidtsmith.com.

Credits: Photo courtesy of Robert Linder.
 
References:
 
AII POW-MIA. (n.d.) “Current Statistics: All Wars.” Accessed February 18, 2010 from the Advocacy and Intelligence Index for POWs-MIAs Archives website.
 
Independence Hall Association. (n.d.) “Flag Rules and Regulations.” Accessed February 18, 2010 from the USHistory.org Betsy Ross Homepage website at www.ushistory.org/betsy/flagetiq.html
 
National Veterans Foundation. (n.d.) “Welcome to HelpVeterans.org.” 
 
Office of the Press Secretary. “Memorandum on the White House Program for the National Moment of Remembrance,” May 2, 2000. Accessed February 18, 2010 through the USMemorialDay.org website at www.usmemorialday.org/Speeches/President/may0200.txt
 
Operation Just Cause. (n.d.) “POW/MIA/KIA Adoptions.” Accessed February 18, 2010 from the Operation Just Cause website at www.ojc.org/adopt/
 
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “Grief, Loss, and Healing.” April 4, 2009. Accessed on February 18, 2010 from the SUVCW Memorial Day website at www.usmemorialday.org
 
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “How to Observe Memorial Day.” April 4, 2009. Accessed on February 18, 2010 from the SUVCW Memorial Day website at http://www.usmemorialday.org/. 
 
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “Memorials and Casualty Files.” April 4, 2009. Accessed on February 18, 2010 from the SUVCW Memorial Day website at www.usmemorialday.org
 
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “U.S Flag Code (4 US Code 1).” January 6, 2010. Accessed on February 18, 2010 from the SUVCW website at http://suvcw.org/flag.htm
 
United Service Organizations, Inc. (n.d.) “About the USO.” Accessed February 18, 2010 from the USO website.